America’s First Urban ‘Agrihood’ Feeds Detroit’s Poor For Free

After hitting rock bottom, Detroit is lookingup.

America’s First Urban ‘Agrihood’ Feeds Detroit’s Poor For Free

Ilana Gordon

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative/YouTube

After hitting rock bottom, Detroit is looking up.

As of 2008, more people live in cities than in rural areas. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will reside in urban centers. This urbanization comes with its own unique set of challenges — especially when it comes to food.

Detroit has been a food desert since 2005. The US Dept. of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area where residents are unable to access fresh, nutritious, affordable provisions. In 2010, 23.5 million Americans lived in conditions like these. Food deserts make it difficult for residents to eat well, contributing to obesity and increasing risks for illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

America’s first urban agrihood

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, a non-profit, was founded in 2012 to empower urban communities. The group uses agriculture as a platform to promote education, community and sustainability. In November, the Initiative debuted the first urban agrihood — a community designed to provide city dwellers with easy access to locally grown food.

Detroit’s agrihood sits in the North End neighborhood, which once housed middle and upper class families. Now mostly vacant, the North End is in decline. Only one grocery store remains.

Tyson Gersh is the president, co-founder and farm manager of the Initiative. He tells Paste Magazine to think of the agrihood as “a residential development strategy with a working farm at the center.”

The Initiative’s agrihood consists of a three-acre development, including a two-acre garden, a sensory garden for children and an orchard with more than 200 fruit trees. The urban garden provides over 50,000 pounds of fresh, local produce every year to the 2,000 families who live within a two mile radius of the farm. And they do it all for free.

Similar communities exist in areas in Illinois, Arizona, Vermont, Idaho and California. Others are under development in Washington, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. Detroit’s agrihood is notable mainly because of its location. In Detroit, where the median household income is barely over $25,000 a year, building an agrihood is much different than building one in Davis, California, where the annual median income is almost $75,000.

A brief history of community gardening

The name agrihood seems fresh and modern, but community gardening is far from being a new idea. During World War II, private plots in urban centers produced 40% of the nation’s fresh vegetables. Most of these victory gardens closed down after the war ended.

Agrihoods also share similarities with Israel’s kibbutzim. First established in 1909 in what was then the Ottoman Empire, these small communities let early Zionists farm the land and live according to principles of equality, communal ownership and social justice. Kibbutzim are credited with contributing to the agricultural and political development of the state of Israel.

Today, community gardening is coming back in a big way: In a 2014 study, the National Gardening Association said that from 2008 – 2013, there was a 17% increase in home and community gardening. Surprisingly, the fastest growing demographic of food gardeners are Millennials.

New plans take root

The Initiative’s agrihood isn’t done yet: Next, it plans to build a 3,200 square foot community resource center. There are plans for a center for education, a water cistern and a health food cafe. Most impressively, the Initiative will collaborate with a local General Motors assembly plant to build a collection of tiny homes inside a shipping container.

Each home will contain 320 square feet of living space, including two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. Employee volunteers will build the units using 85% scrap metal materials donated by GM. Once completed, university student caretakers will live in the units, run the farm and use the land to conduct agricultural research.

In 2015, Detroit News declared that the city was no longer a food desert. Agrihoods can’t take all the credit for this new development, but they’re certainly helping.