Amidst Brightmoor’s vacant lots, these young...

Amidst Brightmoor’s vacant lots, these young Detroit farmers are growing crops — and battling food insecurity

Morgan Watson, 11, stands in the Brightmoor Artisans Collective lot, where she now sells the produce she grows, August 9, 2019. Credit: Damon Mitchell.
Morgan Watson, 11, stands in the Brightmoor Artisans Collective lot, where she now sells the produce she grows, August 9, 2019. Credit: Damon Mitchell.

By Damon Mitchell, Detour Emerging Voices fellow

On most summer Saturdays, a gaggle of hardworking kids attend to crops at Youth Grow Brightmoor (YGB), a garden on Detroit’s west side supported by community organization Neighbors Building Brightmoor. The program, founded in 2014 by Brightmoor residents Bill and Billie Hickey, teaches neighborhood youth to grow, weed, and harvest rows of fruits and vegetables, including green beans, onions, kale, radishes, tomatoes, cantaloupes and watermelons. For many of the gardeners, the youth program is a way to meet friends, keep busy or earn income over the summer. For others, it’s a family tradition. 

For Morgan Watson, 11, the garden has provided a little bit of each. A fourth-year farmer, she’s spent most Saturdays at the garden each summer, learning to grow crops including green peppers, cabbage and collard greens. She first tried her hand at urban farming after her older sister discovered YGB through the Brightmoor community newsletter. Growing potatoes is her specialty, and she often takes home fresh broccoli to add to her family’s chicken alfredo dinners. 

Growing up in Brightmoor, Watson heard her fair share of criticism about the community, but she’s proud to be from the area. Before he moved to the South in 2016, Watson often saw her grandfather pitching in to maintain the neighborhood.

“Almost every single day he would go around with the lawn mower cutting almost all the grass in Brightmoor,” she said.

Keeping a neighborhood together after decline

Brightmoor, population 9,961, is a 4-square-mile neighborhood in northwest Detroit with a reputation for crime, blight and abandonment. It’s been on a downturn since the 1967 rebellion, when it was a dense, working-class neighborhood. The area lost more than a third of its population between 2000 and 2010. In some pockets of Brightmoor, the poverty rate is over 60 percent. In 2014, a citywide blight survey determined that a third of the neighborhood’s buildings were vacant. 

But many blocks are far from empty. While some residents share streets with abandoned schools, others live within view of public art, community spaces and small farms that brighten the neighborhood. 

One of those bright spots is the Brightmoor Artisans Collective on Fenkell Avenue, a community center, cafe and food business incubator where Watson and other YGB farmers sell their produce at the weekly farmers market. Watson is following in her grandfather’s footsteps — he used to maintain the same lot  and once hosted a community Thanksgiving dinner there. 

Brightmoor’s empty lots have attracted a number of urban farmers who see the space as an opportunity to build sustainable, profitable farming operations. The growing number of farms are also a way to bring some healthy produce into a neighborhood where many residents struggle to afford food, or get to traditional grocery stores. The neighborhood has at least five urban farms, and other residents tend personal gardens.

Despite farms, food insecurity remains a struggle

Still, even with the neighborhood’s farms, healthy food is largely inaccessible. At times, the restricted hours of farmers markets exclude working families. For more options and cheaper prices, some residents say they travel five miles south to Joe Randazzo’s Fruit and Vegetable Market in Dearborn Heights.

According to a 2018 food metrics report by local advocacy organization Detroit Food Policy Council, one in three Detroit households are food insecure, or lacks access to affordable, quality food. Though there are more than 70 grocery stores in the city, quality varies, and some neighborhoods have none. From the far west side of Brightmoor, the nearest full-line grocery, Meijer, is just over two miles away. 

In Detroit, the grocery business is a hundred million dollar industry. The city has a $545 million annual loss in grocery retail revenue as people travel outside the city to shop, according to the 2018 DFPC report.

With the loss in revenue, neighborhoods like Brightmoor lose an essential economic link. A 2012 study by nonprofit Fair Food Network found that Detroit residents spent nearly $200 million on groceries sold outside their neighborhoods. 

Brightmoor farmer and resident Brittney Rooney said the community wants to eat healthy, but that affordable, nutritious food options are mostly inaccessible. Although Beaverland Farms, the farm she co-runs a few blocks from YGB, is for-profit, Rooney also grows berries along the street that she invites kids to pick. Watson said that when she and Rooney were neighbors, Rooney invited her to stop by whenever she wanted.

“It’s cool to me to see kids in the neighborhood often on their way to the gas station [to buy packaged snacks], but [at the same time] they’re picking berries and shoving them in their mouths,” Rooney said. “That’s really cool that they can happily do that, and that they see the value in that.

“I don’t think it connects with them that there’s a nutritional benefit,” she continued. “But to just have that memory. … That exposure, I think in the long run, will ultimately benefit them and make them more interested in buying fruit.”

The entrance of the Youth Grow Brightmoor garden on Detroit's west side, August 3, 2019. Credit: Damon Mitchell.
The entrance of the Youth Grow Brightmoor garden on Detroit’s west side, August 3, 2019. Credit: Damon Mitchell.

Cultivating a tenuous local food economy 

The rise in urban farming presents an opportunity for Detroiters to purchase high quality produce, stimulate their immediate economy, create jobs and shop locally.

“A national survey of farmers showed that the average urban farm generates sales of about $50,000 to $60,000, which depends on what you grow, where, and how, with hydroponic production having the highest margins,” Wayne State University Urban Planning Professor Kami Pothukuchi wrote in an email.

But with one-third of Detroit residents living in poverty, there are challenges in providing economic opportunity while increasing healthy food access in the country’s poorest big city. 

“This requires thinking differently about food. We’re so used to food being so cheap that it’s hard to see the growing of agriculture purely from a business perspective,” Pothukuchi added. “There’s a reason why people left farming in droves. If we want produce to be cheap and accessible, then we need to figure out how to support urban growers.”

With the exception of bees, Detroit city code bans farmers from keeping poultry and livestock inside the city’s limits.

As a business and social model, urban farming in Detroit is far from simple. The city’s farm animal ban limits the ways farms can make themselves profitable. In many cases, grants cover supplies rather than wages. Farmers can make higher profits from selling produce at suburban markets as opposed to ones in the city, too. 

Learning entrepreneurship on the farm

Youth Grow Brightmoor is funded by Neighbors Building Brightmoor, grants, donations and proceeds from market sales. The program also receives support from local nonprofit Keep Growing Detroit, as a member of the organization’s Grown in Detroit initiative.

There are benefits to the program beyond profits. Through gardening, Watson’s mother said her confident sixth grader has developed a work ethic, gained exposure to entrepreneurship, practiced financial management and learned the importance of taking pride in her work.

With an interest in fashion, Watson doesn’t see herself working as a farmer in the future. Still, she’d be interested in growing backyard produce and giving it away to the community when she’s older.

On Fridays, Watson and other kids take shifts tabling baskets of the crops they’ve grown at the Brightmoor Artisan Collective’s farmers market. When the crops are sold, the youth receive a percentage of the proceeds based on the hours they put in during the month.

According to BAC Executive Director Brittany Bradd, the market sees about 60 customers per market, most of whom live within a few blocks.

In her best month, Watson earned over $100. The profits have allowed her to purchase school supplies and uniforms. 

“I save some of it because some of it’s in my credit union and I haven’t used it,” Watson said. “But I do spend it.”

Damon Mitchell is a native of Detroit’s west side who writes about neighborhoods and social justice. Follow him on Twitter @damonmtll_.

Detour’s Emerging Voices fellowship program was funded in January 2019 by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a partnership between the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.