Food is one of our basic needs. But finding good food — good for the earth, good for our community, good for our bodies and good for our wallets — is anything but simple. It’s a challenge that has particular implications in Detroit, where COVID-19 has only exacerbated unemployment and poverty; pre-pandemic, 39% of Detroit households were food insecure and thousands didn’t have easy access to grocery stores.
Fortunately, there’s a deep-rooted network of urban farmers, local food distributors, advocates, educators, service organizations and restaurateurs that are producing healthy food, getting it into Detroiters’ hands and sharing their knowledge about how to (affordably) make your meals better.
Because it’s not just fancy dishes served up at new eateries that deserve praise — you do, too. Made the trek to Eastern Market to buy your produce from a Michigan grower? That’s a win (especially if you doubled up your SNAP bucks). Grew your own cucumbers — or saved one from the trash by pickling it? More victories. Found a free food distribution site when you were struggling, then turned the offerings into a dinner that nourished you and left you a little extra to pay other bills? That’s the epitome of good food.
For The Hunger Files series, Detour and Planet Detroit spent months examining Detroiters’ solutions for feeding themselves and their communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at the restaurant industry, food banks and urban farming. We’ve witnessed incredible, urgent need among Detroit families — but we’ve also seen Herculean efforts to answer that need, ingenious solutions and a longstanding, radical commitment to food sovereignty. Through this project, we’ve talked to dozens of local experts who know food, from seed to table. The Hunger Files guide is a bite-sized taste of their wisdom about growing, preserving and finding local food in Detroit, with tips for things you can do, starting today.
Grow your own food in Detroit
Detroit has a long and rich history of urban farming. In the late 19th century, Mayor Hazen S. Pingree encouraged residents to plant gardens, which were dubbed Pingree Potato Patches.
Then in the 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young launched the “Farm a Lot” program with the goal of transforming 1,000 city lots into gardens and empowering Detroiters to grow their own food and save money. A study showed that the average garden produced nearly $140 worth of vegetables. In 2013, Detroit City Council adopted the urban agriculture ordinance, which helped formalize the already thriving growing urban farming scene in the city.
Michigan is the second-most agriculturally-diverse state, leading the nation in the production of asparagus, pickling cucumbers, turnips, blueberries, tart cherries and several types of dry beans. You’re probably not growing cherries at home — but you could be growing beans. Just take it from Mark Covington.
Covington gardened as a young boy when his grandmother would take him to Handy Andy (the big box home improvement store before there was Home Depot). In 2008, he noticed four vacant lots near his home on Georgia Street — soon, it became a garden.
It’s since grown into the Georgia Street Community Collective. This year it grew nearly 40 different kinds of plants, from beans to watermelon, which go directly into the neighborhood.
Covington distilled his knowledge gleaned over many growing seasons into a few simple tips for home gardeners.
- Prep soil for next year.
- Clean out beds.
- Leave plants like perennials for the bugs and let plants like collards and kale go all the way up to first frost.
- Keep things growing year-round by making your hoop house — get creative! You can use straw bales and plastic, cinder blocks, PVC pipes or old windows.
- In late January/early February, start your seeds indoors.
- Start moving your plants outdoors, and if you did your work in the fall, you’re already ahead of the game. If not, get the soil ready and start planting!
- Start cold crops (kale, lettuces, etc.) in April.
- Plant squashes, tomatoes and peppers in May.
- Make sure to check how much sun different crops need and plant them in areas where they’ll get adequate light.
- Reap the rewards of your harvest.
“If you take care of the earth, it’ll take care of you,” said shane bernardo, a food justice activist.
bernardo grew up as the son of Filipino immigrants who grew a garden each year, with Asian vegetables plants like bitter melon, yardlong beans, and Chinese eggplant. His parents also ran a grocery store on the west side that served Southeast Asian, West African and Afro-Caribbean Detroiters. Those two experiences helped shape bernardo’s relationship with food, and drive his food justice work today.
bernardo broke down some small and big steps you can take to get into growing or support local foods in your community, no matter your current experience level.
- Grow things you like to eat.
- Only grow things you have capacity for.
- Develop relationships with experienced farmers.
- Volunteer at an urban farm or community garden to better understand what you need.
To level up:
- Build a rain catchment system.
- Take up beekeeping.
- Build up organic matter in your soil through composting.
- Save seeds.
- Use season extension methods (row cover, cold frames, quick hoops).
- Try interplanting.
Other ideas and resources:
- Keep Growing Detroit, which supported nearly 1,600 gardens and farms last year, offers seeds and transplants, cooking classes, soil testing and more. Their Garden Resource Program offers resources to participants for their vegetable gardens, including seeds and Detroit grown transplants. Once you join the GRP, you can get lots of support and resources to get your garden going.
- The Detroit Garden Center is a nonprofit focused on gardening, beautification and horticulture through lectures, tours, workshops, outreach programs and an extensive horticulture library.
- Get gardening supplies: Try Eastern Market, The Garden Bug and your neighborhood hardware store.
- Figure out when to plant different crops in Michigan here.
- Keep learning: Check out Michigan State University (MSU) Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning and Innovation (DPFLI), MSU’s first urban agriculture and forestry research center.
- No space to grow outside where you live? See if your neighborhood has a community garden.
The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund was formed during the pandemic to help city residents who were already growing in their neighborhoods gain security through land ownership. It’s a new model for turning individual’s efforts to establish their food independence for themselves and their communities into a citywide pathway for locally-led food sovereignty. The fund awarded grants to 30 farmers with its initial campaign, and plans to continue in the coming years.
“When you have Black farmers trying to make a living, we don’t need them to be land insecure.”Jerry Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm
With farmers like bernardo, Covington, Hebron and many more, Detroiters are taking matters into their own hands to provide for themselves and nourish their communities to help make Detroit a food-sovereign city.
Make your food last longer in Detroit
Just pickle it! It sounds too easy, but with a few foundational skills you can save your food for longer, stretching the shelf life of fresh produce — as well as your budget. Freezing, preserving and pickling will help you figure out what to do when you discover your green thumb and suddenly end up with more turnips than you know what to do with — or discover your groceries are about to go bad before you have a chance to eat them. That’s a common problem: Americans throw out 80 million pounds of food a year, or 219 pounds per person, totaling $160 billion.
Katrina Iott founded Aunt Katrina’s Organic Tomatoes in 2017, but her farming roots go way farther than that. She grew up on her family farm in Petersburg, and 25 years ago came back to help the family business to launch tomatoes.com. Earlier this year, she took ownership of Beau Bien Fine Foods, where she makes her signature Kat-Chup as well as 24 different preserves, chutneys and mustards, all highlighting Michigan produce. So she knows about handling massive quantities of fresh fruits and veggies.
The simplest thing you can do, Iott says, is freeze food. Tomatoes, for example, can be frozen raw or roasted. Put them on sheet pans to freeze, then throw into bags.
To make jams and preserves, most recipes simply start with fruit and sugar or pectin. Get creative with flavors: If you want to add fresh herbs to a preserve, just cook them down with the fruit. Add alcohol toward the end. You’ll need: a can-do attitude, a big kettle or pot with a fitted lid and jars with lids.
Put your product into the jars, seal with lids, place into a water bath for about 20 minutes and listen for that pop sound — that’s when you know it’s sealed and safe. “The key is hot product, hot jars and hot lids,” says Iott. Canning is a straightforward process, but you do have to follow some particular rules to make sure you prevent botulism. Learn more here or take the Michigan State University Extension’s Online Home Food Preservation course to become a home canning expert. Canned goods are shelf-stable for several years.
Pickling doesn’t save foods for quite as long, but it’s even easier. First, you make a brine, which is just sugar, salt, and vinegar, and maybe some spices or hot peppers. Try pickling cauliflower, carrots, onions, even watermelon rinds — whatever veggie you like, you can most likely pickle it! Save pickles in the fridge if you’re not canning.
You can find more resources and tips for reducing food waste here. Estimates are that families of four can save anywhere from $1,600 to $2,200 a year by not throwing as much food away. By doing a little work in the summer and fall, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor in the dead of winter.
Find fresh food in Detroit
There are many places to find fresh food — if you know where to look. Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council, gave us an overview of the fresh food landscape in Detroit.
There are 68 grocery stores in Detroit, but “we still need about 13% more grocery stores for coverage to reach our goal,” Bynum says, so all residents live nearby a full-service grocery store. Most stores in the city are family-run or independently owned, putting advocates like in a unique position to help stores improve through initiatives like the Grocery Store Coalition.
“Some [grocery stores] do a really wonderful job at serving their communities and others have a lot of room for growth, opportunity for improvement. And so that’s why it’s still a hot topic,” Bynum says. “We’ve been working on getting resources for those independent grocers who have a goal to serve their communities well.”
Some stores where fresh produce is plentiful:
- Honey Bee La Colmena in Southwest Detroit.
- Whole Foods in Midtown.
- Al-Haramain in Hamtramck.
- Coming soon: Detroit People’s Food Co-op in the North End.
Farmers markets and urban farms:
Eastern Market may be the largest historic public market district in the US. Aside from locally grown fruits and vegetables, there are scores of food and specialty businesses located within the market district selling all types of goods including produce, meat, spices, jams, flowers and poultry. There are also smaller, seasonal farmers markets around Detroit, from Grandmont Rosedale to Morningside, with at least 14 markets and stands across the city, according to the Detroit Food Policy Council.
Some farmers markets to check out:
- Eastern Market — you can also pre order food boxes for pickup.
- Detroit Community Markets throughout the city.
- Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has a Saturday market.
- D-Town Farmers Market: D-Town Farms and Oakland Avenue Farms have teamed up to offer produce through an online marketplace.
And at both farmers markets and grocery stores, shoppers using SNAP, or food assistance benefits, get $1 of produce free for each $1 they spend on eligible fruits and veggies.
Markets aren’t the only way to buy farm-fresh produce. Forge a stronger relationship with a farmer — and get a regular stock of whatever’s just been picked — with a CSA. With community supported agriculture, you buy a share of a farm’s bounty and receive fresh produce for a set period of time. Most CSAs start in spring or summer and last through fall.
Some local CSAs:
- City Commons
- Keep Growing Detroit
- Deeply Rooted Produce
- Beaverland Farms
- Fisheye Farms
- Rising Pheasant
- Nurturing Our Seeds
During the pandemic, some local restaurants pivoted to provide groceries and food staples for their neighborhoods.
“It was never a question of if we would close. It was more of a question of how we can keep doing what we’ve always done, even if it looks different.”Rohani Foulkes, owner of Folk in Corktown
Food banks, schools and other providers have also worked to fill the unprecedented needs of the food insecure, distributing millions of meals monthly.
Where to find free food:
- Gleaners Community Food Bank distributes food daily at different locations in Detroit and surrounding areas.
- Forgotten Harvest also supports local pantries that offer food to those in need.
- Religious groups like the Muslim Center in Detroit, service groups like Brilliant Detroit, shelters like the Pope Francis Center and other community organizations have expanded their efforts during the pandemic to get food to the people they serve, by pickup and delivery.
“If the pandemic does nothing else, it’s made the general community see how important foodservice programs in schools are, and how they sustain the city.”Machion Jackson, Detroit Public School Community District assistant superintendent
A majority of the city’s residents have access to high-quality grocery stores across the city. While there are some neighborhoods that are not served by grocery stores, smaller community efforts like farm stands and markets help fill the gap — and organizations big and small offer food to families who can’t afford it.
Read more from The Hunger Files
How Detroit chefs reinvented their food businesses to survive the pandemic
It took a group of Black farmers to start fixing Detroit’s land ownership problem
How Detroit’s schools and food banks are keeping the city fed amid the pandemic
Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund selects 30 farmers for cash grants to buy land
How Malik Yakini is bringing his food security mission to Detroiters — right when they need it most
Services are on hold at this Detroit mosque during coronavirus crisis, but their soup kitchen still feeds families of all faiths
The Hunger Files series and local food guide was reported and edited in partnership with Planet Detroit, with funding from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Reporting: Dorothy Hernandez, Detroit journalist and editor.
Art: Lindsay Farris, Detroit designer and artist.
Series editor: Nina Misuraca Ignaczak, Planet Detroit founder and executive editor.
Guide editor: Kate Abbey-Lambertz, Detour editorial director