keep growing, detroit.

When a severe recession struck the U.S. in 1893, it hit Detroit particularly hard. As factories, farms and business laid off workers or closed their doors entirely, unemployment rose to nearly 50 percent and civil unrest reached a boiling point. 

In an effort to create jobs and provide food for the poor Mayor Hazen S. Pingree instituted a plan to transform some of the city’s vacant land into vegetable gardens and potato patches. Though initially mocked by critics, the program was a remarkable success, with 975 families raising $14,000 worth of crops on 430 acres of land in the first year alone. 

Soon cities nationwide were replicating the model, garnering Pingree widespread acclaim — including a bronze statue bearing his nickname, “Idol of the People,” which still stands in Grand Circus Park. 

Today, the seeds of urban agriculture Pingree planted more than a century ago are blooming in Detroit thanks to individuals like Keep Growing Detroit Co-Director Ashley Atkinson, who moved to Detroit from Flint in 2001 in order to help drive the movement forward.

“At Keep Growing Detroit, our mission is to promote a food sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters are grown by residents within the city’s limits. In my 17 years in Detroit, the urban agriculture community has grown from about 80 networked gardens across the city to more than 1,550. These gardens and farms support nearly 25,000 residents and provide more than half a million pounds of fruit and vegetables for Detroit families.” 

Atkinson says food sovereignty is important everywhere, but especially in cities like Detroit. 

“A lot happens in the food system that consumers aren’t aware of. Our food is highly processed and full of dangerous preservatives and pesticides… It travels long distances… There are bad labor practices for growers… We have good reason to be skeptical of that system in Detroit because the politics of power and privilege limit access and options. Many Detroiters have to shop in stores that sell rotten food, or deal with employees who have no regard forthe customers or communities.” 

That’s why Keep Growing Detroit’s mission is primarily focused on empowering Detroiters to take back control of that system.

“There’s an awakening that happens when you distrust the food system then pick up a shovel and start growing your own food. Or when you’re socially and economically connected to ethical food businesses — like those with owners who live in the city and are dedicated to hiring Detroiters. It gives consumers more choices, and more importantly, ownership.”

And ownership is the first step toward creating food sovereignty. 

“A community can be food secure and still have no power or agency in the system. That’s why we strive for food sovereignty— a food sovereign community is, first and foremost, inclusive of food producers in the design of the food system — it's truly owned and operated by the community and that’s the critical difference.”

Atkinson believes Detroit’s unique landscape helps make that sovereignty attainable, but there are still some barriers.

“Detroit will be a food sovereign city when we’re growing the majority of our food on less than five thousand acres, which would be roughly twenty-five percent of vacant land in the city right now. Unfortunately, many people think we would need to tear down buildings to create space, or that it would be disruptive in some other way. But in reality, there's plenty of land and plenty of trained people to farm it, so we envision a Detroit where you can grow food at the appropriate scale for every neighborhood. Then it’s not a choice — either agriculture or community and economic development — it’s both working together.”

The benefits of a sovereign food system also extend to the business community. 

For restaurants, having access to a wide variety of fresh, local produce is inspiring. When they have twenty different tomatoes or twenty-five different peppers to choose from, they can craft really unique products. It also creates an opportunity to engage consumers in the conversation about Detroit’s food system.”

But restaurants are just one of many partnerships Keep Growing Detroit has established.

We consider FoodLab Detroit one of our sister organizations. They have a network of about 200 ‘Good Food Businesses,’ mostly start-ups, that they’re developing. Together, we're identifying the barriers keeping those businesses from procuring local produce, whether it’s cost, availability, or variety. It can be hard and expensive for new businesses to get quality produce, so our gardens provide fresh, local food for them to use, and simultaneously helps them develop a triple bottom line business that’s socially, environmentally and financially successful.”

Indeed, from backyard and neighborhood gardens across the city to the business sourcing produce from them, Ashley and the Keep Growing Detroit team are cultivating a more deeply connected food system which, in turn, creates a more connected community. 

“A lot of people think we’re just about food, but one of the most important elements of our work is building social capital. We're really community organizers, and food is just one amazing vehicle to reconnect people to one another and their environment. We have gardeners who say they've met lots of new friends and acquaintances through their involvement in our program, so it’s very powerful in terms of building peoples’ social network.”

That sense of connectedness is vital not only to helping Detroiters achieve food sovereignty, but also to helping them advocate for their communities when facing other issues that will impact their lives.

“In community gardens, neighbors who are basically strangers are coming together to grow food, which can cause some conflict. Or community leaders who are trying to get a garden going in their neighborhood call us for help with conflict mediation when challenges arise. We think if we can get people talking to one another to solve these micro arguments, it builds collective efficacy — which is the ability to make decisions together. If they can settle arguments about the placement of corn and beans in the garden, then when bigger issues come up — like the neighborhood going through a strategic planning process with the City of Detroit — they have the relationships and skill set to advocate for what they agree is best for the whole community.”