Student-led urban farming initiative to bring sustainability to Detroit’s north end
A mother with six small children visited the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry at a Detroit’s Women and Infant Children office, and all of them were drinking Faygo orange pop, some out of baby bottles. The mother thought it had the same nutritional value as orange juice.
That’s when Tyson Gersh, then a researcher at the clinic, began his mission.
“In Detroit, there is a complete disconnect between people and their food,” Gersh said. “It’s like a food desert. Advertisements exploit people who don’t know any better.”
A gardener all his life and former student at Washtenaw Community College, Gersh feared that residents in the city purchase the bulk of their food from gas stations and convenience stores. With a board of seven members, he founded the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (mufi) in 2011 to foster the acquisition of naturally produced food for a city that he sees starving.
“It was humbling to see how much is already in place, but a lot still needs to be done,” Gersh said. “Many community gardens get set up and then sit unused. They are unable to grow into legal non-profits.”
mufi plans on not only growing food on the wealth of vacant land surrounding the building, but to strengthen the urban farming movement in Detroit by offering workshops and other resources to inform those interested in what needs to be done and how they can help.
Purchasing an apartment building on Brush Street at a Wayne County tax auction in 2011 for $5,000 out of pocket, mufi has until the spring of 2012 been in planning stages. To complete renovations on the Brush Street co-op, Gersh is looking raise $300,000 through donations and fundraising events in the community.
“We’re looking at a long-term revitalization of Detroit through urban renewal and we have the resources necessary,” Gersh said.
Gersh also enlists the help of volunteers on mufi’s planned work days. On the first workday, he was impressed to see 200 volunteers show up to remove debris and raise garden beds. Gersh maintains about 15 regular volunteers who work on the project around 20-30 hours a week.
“It’s a big building and there is a lot that needs to be done,” Gersh said. “It is hard work, but you are contributing to what is going to be a very permanent asset to the community and something that is aesthetically pleasing as a nationally recognized hot spot for sustainable agriculture. We need volunteers.”
The building sits near the site of the proposed light rail train linking Ann Arbor to Detroit. Not far out of Detroit’s downtown in the city’s north-end, mufi’s board is optimistic for its potential visibility.
“It’s a location that would have a lot of exposure to businesses and employees,” said Darin McLeskey, director of operations. “The north end has not seen the same amount of investment as other neighborhoods near downtown.”
When studying for a master’s degree in environmental engineering in 2011, McLeskey realized that he wouldn’t have to go far from his hometown of Pinckney to elicit change. The 21-year-old made a drastic change of plans: he would now stay in Michigan to help solve the food crisis in its biggest city: Detroit.
“Going to college, I just wanted to move away,” McLeskey said. “The more I learned about sustainability, I realized that the grass is not always greener on the other side. There are problems in all major cities. I realized I need to stay here and make a difference, utilized my skills here in my own backyard.”
According to McLeskey, Gersh’s main concern is for the social implications of the problem and solving it one person at a time. McLeskey believes his duty is to focus on the economics of the organization, planning out the gardens and figuring out the costs associated with mufi’s various installations.
“It’s about being more sustainable, economically,” McLeskey said. “We’re just looking to save residents money. It doesn’t make sense to keep going out into the wilderness and constructing things. We’ll end up leaving a path of blight and destruction.”
No one on the board is more aware of this blight than
mufi’s Director of Development Darnell Adams. The 26-year-old lived in the Motor City all his life and studied urban planning at Michigan State University. He graduated in 2009 and now works as a research analyst for the Detroit City Council.
Familiar with the city he grew up in, Adams was excited to hear about mufi from a co-worker at Detroit’s Enrichment Center, where he works part-time.
“In Detroit we have a lot of poor nutrition, a lack of fresh fruit and veggies,” Adams said. “We need to allow our community to feed themselves. Now that we have the drive and initiative to pull all the other organizations together, we have a huge vision.”
Aside from the Brush Street Co-op, mufi has two other projects in the works. The organization is looking to restore a two-unit greenhouse at Concordia University, pending the school’s merger with Concordia Wisconsin and to partner with Citizens Enriching Rehabilitation through Agriculture (certa) to give patients who’ve suffered severe brain injuries a chance to work on their community as they heal.
Parties interested in volunteering at mufi can visit its website at miufi.org and fill out an application to be sent straight to Gersh.
Gersh is looking forward to several work days over the summer and is presently taking all comers looking to help.