Urban Agriculture and Social Justice

I want to be an urban farmer," said Tom Howe, 19, a first-year student at Wayne State University (WSU). "I want to start a community garden in some kind of ecovillage with farmers and chefs." This may seem an unusual career goal for a young man of the 21st century, let alone one from Birmingham, an upscale middle class suburb of Detroit. But Howe is a member of WSU’s Sustainable Food Systems Education and Engagement in Detroit, or SEED Wayne for short.

SEED Wayne calls for a critical assessment of the conventional "industrialized food system" and its relationship to the health of local communities, economies, environments, and cultures, said Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of geography and urban planning at WSU and founder of "the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school. SEED Wayne also challenges students and others to examine the broader implications of their food choices," she said. This includes several social justice concerns inherent in a trillion-dollar industrialized food system that is controlled by the ten mega-corporations that oversee food production, processing, distribution, and preparation.

In contrast a "community-based food system" revolves around local farmers, processors, and distributors who produce fresh and value-added products. Over the past ten years many people have joined the local food movement through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), community gardens, restaurants and stores that provide local food, blogs that discuss these issues and locate alternative food sources, and advocacy organizations that disseminate public information. The movement took a giant leap in 2008 when concern over tainted food imports became an issue.

Pothukuchi is among a handful of urban planners who see local agriculture (within 150 miles) and urban farming as a valuable tool for regional economic development. It has the potential for creating jobs, developing small businesses, and keeping dollars in the community. This was the way it worked until the 1950s, before the "industrialized system" for mass production and economies of scale was designed to feed the nation, Pothukuchi said. The chemical industry also helped to increase food production using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as new technologies for boxed, canned, or frozen foods. Through these efforts, the United States became a top food producer in the world. Meanwhile, grocery store chains offered consumers more food, more convenience, and lower prices.

An Earthworks Urban Farm volunteer at the SEED Wayne Farmers Marketphoto from www.clas.wayne.edu/seedwayne

According to Pothukuchi, corporate owned stores located outside some communities have tended to lower the local tax base and reduce the variety and number of jobs available for locals. Detroit, like so many other central cities, has no national and regional grocery store chains. Residents spend approximately $500 million every year in food stores outside the city. An increase in obesity, environmental degradation, and the erosion of ethnic culinary traditions are also the consequences of the industrialized food system.

Consequently, SEED Wayne is dedicated to helping build a sustainable food system on campus and in Detroit. It works with a number of community partners to promote food security, urban agriculture, farm-to-institution programs, and food planning and policy development.

Community-Building Gardening

Howe’s first exposure to the city’s urban gardens occurred at Earthworks, when he volunteered to work in its 1,300-square-foot greenhouse as part of his high school service requirement while he was a student at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. The greenhouse produces and distributes more than 100,000 vegetable seedlings for the city’s 355 backyard, community, and school gardens.

Earthworks was started in 1997 by Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn after he noticed that the poor were buying their food at gas stations, and kids were calling Coke and chips a meal. He began a small garden on a vacant lot and two years later developed six other lots by removing debris and regenerating the soil with compost.

Today the gardens supply fresh, organic produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which prepares 2,000 meals per day. They also provide 25 million pounds of food a year, 65,000 meals per day to the Gleaners Community Food Bank, another Capuchin spin-off. As a student at WSU, Howe still volunteers at Earthworks once a month, but he also helps to grow and sell vegetables at the WSU farmers market.

Senior Kristina Stonehill, 22, an English and anthropology major, decided to participate in SEED Wayne’s garden program because a friend recruited her. As a commuter school, WSU students need to find a reason to stay on campus after they finish their classes, she said, and learning how to grow herbs and vegetables is a good reason.

The Warrior Demo Garden (named after the university’s mascot) provides fresh produce for the campus cafeterias as well as the city’s food assistance programs. Students volunteer to maintain the garden and use it to inform curious passersby about SEED Wayne. "SEED Wayne is really accepting of anyone who wants it," said Stonehill. "It’s not an exclusive club."

Will Ahee, 20, began gardening at Earthworks when he was a student at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. He is now a junior in environmental science and Pothukuchi’s assistant in charge of SEED Wayne. "Urban students who feel cut off from nature are finding that food has become a vehicle to re-connect with it," he said. "Gardens allow people to serve, but they also help people share their knowledge and connect with others."

WSU law students at the Georgia Street Community Gardenphoto from georgiastreetgarden.blogspot.com

One of the unique aspects of SEED Wayne, especially pertinent to a city like Detroit, is its social justice mission. Detroit has the distinction of being the nation’s poorest big city, where nearly 33 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2004).

"Healthy food needs to be available to all people…. It is a fundamental right." Ahee said. He could have gone to Michigan State University to learn sustainable agriculture practices, but he was attracted to Detroit where there is much economic struggle and not much access to healthy food. "I knew I wanted to give service," said Ahee, "but I also wanted something that would have lasting change. Helping someone learn how to grow food does it for me."

WSU students are emblematic of today’s growing national trend where young people are looking for ways to make a difference in their world. SEED Wayne helps to provide students with opportunities to learn about and experiment with sustainable food production and improve their future environment.


Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She writes for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion.