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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/15/09

Urban Agriculture as a Career Path

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DETROIT—“I want to be an urban farmer,” said Tom Howe, 19, a freshman at Wayne State University. “I want to start a community garden in some kind of ecovillage with farmers and chefs.”

This may seem an unusual career goal for a young man of the twenty-first century, let alone one from Birmingham, an upscale middle class suburb of Detroit. It’s also counter-intuitive that a major university located in the middle of the cultural center could offer Howe a means to his aspirations.

But Howe is a member of WSU’s Sustainable Food Systems Education and Engagement in Detroit or “SEED Wayne” for short, a program that was instituted last May.

SEED Wayne calls for a critical assessment of the conventional food system and its relationship to the health of local communities, economies, environments, and cultures, said Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of geography and urban planning at WSU and the founder of the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school.

“SEED Wayne also challenges students and others to examine the broader implications of their food choices,” she said.

For example, Pothukuchi teaches how a “community-based food system” revolves around local farmers, processors and distributors who produce fresh and value-added products.

Pothukuchi, who is among a handful of professional urban planners who see local agriculture and urban farming as a valuable tool for regional economic development, said that community-based agriculture has the potential for creating jobs, developing small business entrepreneurships and keeping precious dollars in the community.

“Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the United States [with 150 crops],” she said. “We could add another $2.58 billion to the state’s economy if we increased production of local food by another 10 percent.”

Consequently, SEED Wayne is dedicated to contributing to building a sustainable food system on campus and in the Detroit area, said Pothukuchi. It works with a number of community partners to promote food security, urban agriculture, farm-to-institution programs, and food planning and policy development.

Among its partners are the Ford Mother Company Fund, which contributed $100,000, The Henry Ford, AVI Foodsystems, Inc. (WSU dining service), Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, City Connect Detroit (funding opportunities service). Other partners include members of the Detroit Agricultural Network, a collection of organizations that promotes the city’s urban gardens such as Greening of Detroit, Forgotten Harvest (food rescue service), the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Earthworks.

Howe’s first exposure to the city’s urban gardens occurred at Earthworks when he volunteered to work in its 1,300-square-foot greenhouse as part of his high school service requirement while he was a student at the University of Detroit-Jesuit. The greenhouse produces and distributes more than 100,000 vegetable seedlings for the city’s 355 backyard, community, and school gardens.

Earthworks was started in 1997 by Brother Rick Samyn after he noticed that the poor were buying their food at gas stations, and kids were calling Coke and chips a meal. He began a small garden on a vacant lot and two years later developed six other lots by removing debris and regenerating the soil with compost.

Today the gardens supply fresh, organic produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which prepares 2,000 meals per day. They also provide 25 million pounds of food a year, equivalent to 65,000 meals per day to the Gleaners Community Food Bank, another Capuchin spin-off.

As a student at WSU, Howe still volunteers at Earthworks once a month, but he also helps to grow and sell vegetables at the WSU farmers market which operates on the fourth Wednesday during the summer months.

“I love seeing people and vendors talking together [at the farmers market],” said Howe.

Senior Kristina Stonehill, 22, an English and anthropology major, decided to participate in SEED Wayne’s garden program because a friend recruited her. As a commuter school, WSU students need to find a reason to stay on campus after they finish their classes, she said, and learning how to grow herbs and vegetables is a good reason.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)
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