The tale of the crash of the Detroit auto industry and subsequent decimation of the local job market, mass exodus of residents, eventual city bankruptcy has become a great American tragedy. But amongst the ruins of a once thriving metropolis, residents are sowing seeds of hope in the schools and the community.
Since 2010, Detroit Public School officials have been forced to shutter more than 70 schools due to budget cuts and dwindling enrollment. Some have been sold in the struggle to balance the collapsing city budget. But one former school is getting a new life as an urban farm with the help of the Michigan State University Extension and one very dedicated “lunch lady.”
Riverside, California, once known for a thriving real estate industry, was hit hard by the economic crisis of 2008. As more residents became dependent on soup kitchens and food bank use increased, lack of access to fresh local produce in the community became starkly apparent, despite the fact that the city is surrounded by thousands of acres of agricultural land.
That’s when UC Riverside graduate Fortino Morales convened fellow students to find space on the campus of University of California at Riverside for a community garden. Through the persistence of student volunteers, UC Riverside is now home to a three-acre community garden that isn’t only growing fresh food, it is growing converts to a Riverside local food movement.
It’s no surprise that San Francisco has a strong urban farming community—and it’s one borne of the efforts of local government working closely with community groups.
San Francisco has implemented supportive city plans, policies, and codes that help facilitate urban agriculture within the city, according to Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture program manager at SPUR. SPUR, a non-profit organization, promotes good planning and government in the San Francisco Bay Area.
With a community garden program established in 1973 and sustainability planning devised in 1994, Seattle has a long history of sustainable urban agriculture. Today, Seattle paints a realistic picture for how cities can approach sustainable urban agriculture, illustrating both the limits and possibilities of a local food economy in the nation’s urban centers.
Several city departments help drive Seattle’s sustainable success including the Office of Sustainability and the Environment and the Department of Neighborhoods. Numerous city and private programs encourage urban agriculture, gardening, shared space, environmental preservation and community involvement. Access to local healthy food plays a big role in the city’s planning. By supporting community gardening and backyard farms, Seattle allows its residents to become not only more self-sufficient, but more educated, more aware and more community-minded.
Smart Living Studios, Inc. was co-founded by Kristee Rosendahl, chief product officer, and Carl Alguire, CEO, in 2012. This was the same year the company introduced its first product, Smart Gardener, a free online application that’s designed to help people plan, grow and harvest their own organic food.
Since the company’s inception, private individuals who care about the future of the food system have funded the business.
“They learned about us through word of mouth, presentations or press about what we were doing and then reached out to us,” says Rosendahl.
Smart Gardener keeps gardening simple and makes recommendations for the right plants, where to plant them, how many to plant, and then sends a list of what to do that week. Tasks can include planting, mulching, feeding, thinning, watering, and more. The planner keeps records, too.
“Farm” is no longer a four-letter word in Kansas City—and it hasn’t been since 2010 when the city passed a zoning ordinance allowing citizens to grow food in residential areas. Prior to the ordinance, it was illegal to grow food for profit in areas zoned residential. This made operations difficult for urban farmers, especially those whose business models revolved around growing food within the communities they sold to.
Kansas City urban farmer and educator Steve Mann played an integral part in the passage of the ordinance, along with other leaders in Kansas City’s sustainable agriculture movement. Mann, who is the site developer for the sustainable agriculture nonprofit Cultivate Kansas City and a gardening educator for Food Not Lawns Kansas City, says that both farmers and city officials were eager to work together to make Kansas City more urban farm-friendly.
With a penchant for all things rotting, Russ Henry has built a sustainable business, literally from the ground up.
Giving Tree Gardens is an organic landscaping service in Minneapolis well known for its high quality compost. Specializing in native species planting, pollinator-friendly designs and organic gardening education, Giving Tree Gardens has been building a sustainable business and a positive influence in the Twin Cities since 2005.
Russ Henry, owner of Giving Tree Gardens, spent many years in the landscaping world before starting his own company.
In early March, 2014, Raleigh-based food processing technology company Aseptia secured $28 million in Series C-Preferred Stock financing to support the growth of Wright Foods Inc., the manufacturing subsidiary of Aseptia. Lookout Capital, SJF Ventures, Prudential, and F.B. Heron Foundation provided the financing.
As a leading aseptic food manufacturer, Aseptia has developed an aseptic, sustainable, shelf-stable carton that can maintain a higher-quality food product, according to Michael Drozd, president and CEO of Wright Foods. The packaging can be found in most every grocery store.
Local urban farmers in Detroit have recognized that the whole is often greater than its parts—and so they’ve combined forces to strengthen the local food scene and their own bottom lines.
Six Detroit farm businesses have combined to create City Commons, a cooperative in which members support the six farms with a purchase of seasonal shares of fresh produce and other farm products. Members receive a weekly box of fresh-from-the-farm, organically grown food that has been raised entirely within Detroit’s city limits. The coop model is advantageous for customers who like a wide variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s also advantageous for independent farmers who are trying to make a living exclusively by farming—especially those who share a passion for fresh, local food for an urban population.
Founded in 2010, Seattle’s Alleycat Acres currently consists of three small farms that serve their surrounding communities not only with a place to reconnect with their food source, but also a shared space to regain the meaning of community in the urban setting.
Scott MacGowan is one of Alleycat Acre’s original founders, focusing on educational programming and logistics for the current and future farm plots.
“There is a cultural shift that has to happen,” says MacGowan. “People need to start growing more food, have more community get-togethers and share resources; more of those traditional farming practices. We’ve got to figure out ways to bring it back. And by negotiating with private landowners for abandoned residential lot use, Alleycat Acres is doing just that.