Freight farm to grow vegetables for Detroit homeless

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Lettuce seedlings grow under grow lights in seedling troughs in a shipping container at Cass Community Social Services on Wednesday.

A 40-foot shipping container transformed into a freight farm will be used to grow vegetables for 700,000 meals served by Cass Community Social Services each year to those in need. 

The donation of the container from the Ford Motor Company Fund is part of a $250,000 grant Cass Community Social Services received through the Ford Motor Farm project.

With the use of a hydroponic system and LED lighting, the farm operates without pesticides, sunlight or soil. It also uses 90 percent less water than an outdoor garden.

“It means fresh produce all year round, which is really huge,” said Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services. “Homeless people have a number of issues that are exacerbated by junk food, poor nutrition. To be able to have fresh food every day. Salads and greens and herbs are good for them.”

Freight Farm assistant Charlotte Gale of Detroit inserts seeds into peat moss pods, where they start to grow, in a converted shipping container at Cass Community Social Services in Detroit.

The first crop of vegetables will be ready to harvest in two to three weeks, said Kathy Peterson, the farm freight supervisor.

Currently, red leaf and butterhead lettuce plants are in various stages of growth inside the 7.5-ton shipping container stationed inside a garage space at Cass Community Social Services on Rosa Parks Boulevard. It only takes about five days for a lettuce seed to sprout and eventually be transferred to a plant wall where it will grow before it is harvested to eat.

“We have just started this endeavor, but I do know we can produce hundreds of thousands of produce a year,” Peterson said.

The project was the idea of a “Thirty under 30” team, Ford’s philanthropic leadership program, according to Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services. The group initially thought to create a farm in the bed of a Ford F-150, and that idea evolved into the idea of growing vegetables inside a shipping container.

Cass Community Social Services received earlier this year a Ford F-150 with a garden bed that uses to teach healthy eating habits at local schools. The Ford Mobile Farm runs during the spring and fall.

“It not only provides produce to the kids, but it also educates and teaches kids that maybe didn’t know that carrots came from the ground, that you can pull from the ground and eat fresh delicious food,” said Chris Craft, a member of the “Thirty under 30” team.

Lettuce grows in vertical grow columns.

“However, we realized that education was only one part of the solution and that we also needed to address systemic unemployment and also food deserts that had no availability of fresh produce.”

Craft said the team researched and found the concept of using recycled shipping containers as farms. Cass Community Social Services was selected for the grant.

Fowler said the nonprofit will also use the grant money to employ developmentally disabled adults at the freight farm.

“We anticipate hiring between three and five men and women working there as a job-training site and some potentially for long-term,” she said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN