Farming nonprofit aims to grow North End co-op
On Detroit’s north end, volunteers hope to marry food distribution with farming skills to engage and feed residents.
The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, an all-volunteer effort, has plans to erase the notion of a food desert in an area that many say has been under served by food choices.
The nonprofit seeks to complete an effort begun in October 2011 when it opens the former three-story apartment building at 7432 Brush as a community center and cafe. The organization is hoping to raise $50,000 and receive a $50,000 match from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., through crowdfunding on Patronicity.
If the crowdfunding push is successful, the money would go into a larger fund for work on the building that will anchor the nonprofit, serving not only as its headquarters, but also a health-food cafe and commercial kitchen, along with meeting, event and educational space for the neighborhood.
Tyson Gersh, president and co-founder of MUFI, sees the organization’s work on the north end as the creation of America’s first “urban agrihood.” Agrihoods, found in rural or suburban areas, are generally defined as neighborhoods that offer a mix of farm-to-table food offerings and “cooperative living.” These are not just farms in the community, but of, by and for the community, where the skills and relationships that result are almost as important as the food itself.
What makes it unique is its urban setting.
“I called around at least 50 of them,” Gersh said of agrihoods. “They tend to be in areas that are completely blank-slated,” not just one piece in an existing and changing neighborhood, like the north end.
While grocers and community leaders in Detroit have resisted the “food desert” label for Michigan’s largest city, that the label applies in the north end is not in dispute.
MUFI has benefited from corporate support since winning the building in an October 2011 auction with a bid $5 higher than the next competitor. With an April 2 deadline approaching, BorgWarner of Auburn Hills has donated $10,000 toward the fundraising push. General Motors, Herman Miller, Mercedes Benz and BASF, among others, have contributed over the years.
As of Sunday afternoon, MUFI had raised $12,835 via Patronicity. The last day donations will count toward the $50,000 match is April 2.
Detroit Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, whose 5th District encompasses the north end, said MUFI has “contributed to a lot of neighborhood initiatives around blight removal” and added that “residents are grateful for their support.”
When complete, the community center, Sheffield said, will “give the community a creative space to grow, learn and broaden their horizon around urban agriculture and entrepreneurship.”
Access to fresh produce and quality food is limited in the north end, Sheffield said. MUFI’s work to tackle that problem has given it “huge community support.”
Last year, the organization gave some 20,000 pounds of free food to area residents and community organizations. This year, MUFI continues that work but is also looking to open a long-closed building at 7432 Brush and turn it to productive use.
“This is a chance for individuals to make a contribution,” Gersh said.
In four growing seasons, starting in 2012, the organization gave some 50,000 pounds of food to area residents and community organizations. The intent is for that food to reach people in the neighborhood, but MUFI operates on an honor system — if people say they need food, they’re given food.
“We now have more demand at the residential level than we can support,” Gersh said.
Some 300 types of vegetables are grown on the land, in addition to 200 trees producing cherries, plums, pear and apples.
Volunteers pop in on Saturdays and can learn farming techniques from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free food also is distributed Saturdays. The group expects to add more days this year.
MUFI’s work on its agrihood nears completion at a time when gentrification is a concern among many who have called Detroit home for decades. By providing the skills to grow the food by turning two square blocks into productive use, MUFI re-imagined that concern.
Gersh, who lives in the area, was the earliest arriving volunteer on a recent Saturday.
Tourists and sightseers find their way to the site “on an almost daily basis,” Gersh said.
“Detroit having the world spotlight on it, with everybody everywhere looking at us saying (as a model for) post-industrial cities, it’s important that we make our successes visible and accessible, so that when people are trying to figure out what works, they’re able to implement it,” Gersh said.
In addition to those corporate donations and the on-site work by volunteers, Gersh said the crowdfunding effort “will create an opportunity for people across a wide variety of levels, not just big companies, to have a hand in helping us grow to a new phase of operations.”
“Everybody is going to be able to win together,” Gersh said.
Agrihood in North End
What: On Saturdays, volunteers can learn farming techniques from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: 7432 Brush in the north end section of Detroit.
Phone: (313) 444-6834