Detroit gardening


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Tyson Gersh fell in love with the city of Detroit when he was a 20-year-old at the University of Michigan because a fellow student talked at length about the city and the potential for growth.

“He was so obsessed with Detroit, and I thought it was so strange,” Gersh said. “I was from Ann Arbor, and [I thought] ‘Didn’t he listen to his parents? We don’t go to Detroit.’ ”

He was taught growing up that Detroit isn’t safe — especially if one didn’t grow up there. There were gangs; there was an abundance of crime. It was a city saturated with problems.

Now, four years later, Gersh is fully invested in the inner-city neighborhoods as cofounder and president of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. And over the University of Iowa’s spring break, 17 students traveled to Detroit to address the issue of urban decay with various service projects and nonprofits in the area.

For the week, the group focused on several subsections of urban decay, including hunger and food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined as not having access to nutritious food.  

The program educates the Detroit community about healthy eating, the importance of fresh produce, and how to grow and maintain food for themselves. The initiative became a social justice project as the founders strived to battle food insecurity in the area.

Twenty-one percent of the population of Wayne County, where Detroit is located, is considered to be food-insecure, according to data from the nonprofit Feeding America. Johnson County, in comparison, has a food-insecurity rate of 14.2 percent.

UI students dug trenches, planted flowers, and hauled wood to help keep the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative alive. It was the second time UI students have traveled to Detroit to fight urban decay. The trip encompasses a weekly class, and this trip, students completed a service projected related to their trip in Iowa City.

The initiative owns land in the center of a Detroit neighborhood that was once an empty house. The property was turned into a community garden, where residents can purchase vegetables, paying a suggested price or whatever they can afford.

“It started as a very naïve effort to end food insecurity through community gardening,” Gersh said. “It was naïve because if we had any idea how difficult the problems were to solve then, like we know now, we wouldn’t have done it.”

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Neighborhood resident Candace Jones said she has learned how she can live longer by eating healthier through the efforts of the farm and its volunteers. She has also learned the importance of having a large population to derive help from.

“I have noticed more people are coming to this area, period, where this area was vacant, basically,” she said. “It’s well needed because [there’s] not enough bodies to do it. That’s how you build a community, by coming together no matter where you’re from.”

Demetrius Thomas, a distribution coordinator for Gleaner’s Food Bank, said having volunteers from out of town allows a new population of citizens to learn about and understand these issues.

“I take pride in my city a lot,” said Thomas, who was born and raised in Detroit. “I know there are a lot of black eyes around here from what people see … but they shouldn’t look at us like we’re some criminal-filled city. We may be down, but we’re still pushing forward.”

Gleaner’s Food Bank supplies different organizations with food to later distribute to people struggling to provide for themselves.

“We are known as the blue-collar city, so we work hard for what we have,” he said. “But we can only work so much.”

The idea that many in Detroit are struggling to find work or are simply just burnt out from working too hard has persisted for years.

Detroit has been in a well-publicized downfall. Fluctuations in the auto industry have plagued the city’s economy for years.

While Detroit struggled, those who had the means to move vacated the city for the suburbs. This left the poorer population in the city to battle the issues — maintain properties, hold down jobs, and find quality resources.

Richard Rubens, a volunteer at the Ford Piquette Plant, thinks Detroit is just on a cycle of ups and downs — as it always has.

“We boom and we bust. When we boom, we boom bigger than everybody and when we bust, oh do we bust,” he said. “We’re in that bust cycle at the present time, and we’re just coming out of it. We can see all the signs of prosperity coming about.

“I think Detroit is headed for a big boom. This is opportunity central … I’m not worried about what we’re going to do in Detroit. Opportunity is there and people will find it.”

Students agreed the experience highlighted issues in their own communities as well.

“Certainly there are injustices in Detroit, but there are also injustices in Iowa City. And the things that I’ve learned [in Detroit] … I can bring back to Iowa City, even though the issues are slightly different,” UI junior Morgan Brittain said. “There’s definitely still the same concept behind how we would tackle these issues.”

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