Correction appended: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Noam Kimelman and Zachary Markin are University alumni. Kimelman is a graduate student and Markin is an undergraduate.
Expressing my enthusiasm for the city of Detroit gets me into different kinds of conversations, depending on whom I’m talking to. Many people, especially those who have been living in this area for a long time, don’t understand my positivity. They react with disinterest or disparaging comments, and I nearly always end up defensive. This wasn’t the case, though, during a recent conversation with an out-of-stater passionate about ecology and food systems. “Detroit! There are really exciting things happening there,” he asserted. And he’s right.
Because of the role the University has had in several projects, many students already know that those exciting things largely concern food production and distribution in the city. Detroit has long been considered a food desert, meaning that residents don’t have adequate access to reasonably-priced fresh food. In the last few years, several creative people have envisioned ways to address this problem.
University graduate student Noam Kimelman and undergraduate Zachary Markin, have received a lot of attention recently for the organization — Get Fresh Detroit — that they started as a result of a class in 2010. Aware of the prevalence of small convenience and liquor stores around Detroit, they provide fresh fruits and vegetables to these distributors. I spoke with Mr. Kimelman recently about the strategy and vision of Get Fresh. It’s a unique system in that the organization attempts to provide food in a manner that is both sustainable and profitable for the store owners, meaning that no store will jump in out of short-lived good will, but rather to be part of a “systemic change.”
Making produce profitable for a convenience store means making it similar to its other products: packaged, easy and convenient with a longer shelf life. It also involves a concept that may seem startling: aggressively marketing vegetables. Mr. Kimelman explained that just as potato chips wouldn’t sell without widespread advertising by the manufacturers, simply “sticking a yellow squash on the shelf” is not enough. A large part of the organization’s mission is reaching out to the community and spreading the word about their products. Future plans for Get Fresh Detroit include working toward 100-percent local sourcing and building local partnerships.
This fits well with the larger movement to both improve food access to Detroiters and improve awareness of what exactly constitutes sound nutrition. Another branch of this effort, which has been growing in Detroit for decades, is the creation of neighborhood and community gardens. Detroit has a particularly unique position for urban agriculture given the large amounts of vacant land. The Greening of Detroit provides resources and support for communities and individuals who want to start gardens.
Another critical part of their mission, though, is environmental education. Just like sticking a squash on a shelf, sticking a few seeds in a vacant lot doesn’t make a difference unless it comes along with outreach to the community. When I worked for The Greening of Detroit last summer, I helped children plant trees and flowers in their school lots and taught them basic elements of environmental knowledge, like how ecosystems and food chains function. Through that experience, they began to understand their relationship with the outside world we know as nature.
Many community gardens give children and adults the profound opportunity to see a vegetable travel through its entire life cycle, from a seed in their hand to a meal on their plate. When you plant a squash and tend to it every day, you understand the effort necessary to produce such a seemingly simple object. You see the fruit form, at first no bigger than your finger, then over weeks miraculously nearing the size of your forearm. It’s impossible, following the life of this food, to not understand that the production of such a squash took work — that it required energy. You can then visualize the transfer of energy into your body when you eat it. You understand the link between your daily activities and the sun, rain and soil. You realize your dependence on a balanced energy system and, hopefully, feel a need to protect that delicate arrangement.
Let me reiterate, Ann Arbor and the University are not isolated from these exciting developments. Aside from University ties with Detroit and the work of entrepreneurial alumni, Project Grow maintains organic community gardens throughout the Ann Arbor area, and students both garden at home and participate in Community Supported Agriculture Programs. With so many different ideas and methods of improving fresh food access, southeast Michigan can take a leading role in the development of a new, more just and sustainable system of producing and distributing food.
Carolyn Lusch can be reached at email@example.com.