There's a subtle irony embedded in our current national craving for locally grown food: Cities, the antithesis of the countryside, have arguably become the easiest place to indulge in it. The rise of farmers' markets and buying clubs has transformed urban food possibilities and the economic viability of small American farmers. It's a radical shift, and one driven not by market forces or government, but by the work of a burgeoning cadre of activists from coast to coast. Driven by the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, local food, these visionaries are changing the contents of city shoppers' carts from Philadelphia's tony Society Hill to the gritty edges of Oakland, California.

Motor City Harvest - Detroit, MI

“All right, when you’re starting your seedlings, you don’t need to go buy those trays, right?” Ashley Atkinson, a bespectacled and freckled 29-year-old, is quickly wrapping a piece of newspaper around a bottle of water, talking to a dozen tables of Detroiters eating through a potluck dinner as she works. “Because what are those trays made out of?”

The room chuckles: “Plastic!”

“And what is that made of?” asks Atkinson.

“Petroleum!”

“Right!” says Atkinson, triumphantly pulling her makeshift paper cup off the water bottle. “So just use this instead.”

If local food acolytes were to nominate the least likely place for an agricultural revolution, Detroit, Michigan might well top the list. The nation’s poorest and most obese city, Detroit is also one of the nation’s most parched food deserts. But if a cornucopia doesn’t spring to mind when you think about the Motor City, says Atkinson, who’s heading into her tenth year as an urban farming activist, that’s probably because you’re not thinking very creatively.

With officials estimating Detroit's vacancy rate at 10 to 20 percent of city land, "and a complete food desert, we have this great potential," says Atkinson, who oversees the Garden Resource Project Collaborative, a network and service organization for more than 300 food-producing gardens and farms within Detroit’s city limits. Since the GRPC’s inception in 2003, Atkinson has helped grow the project into a fledgling behemoth, more than tripling its membership even as Detroit has shrunk.

Farming may be first in Atkinson’s passions, but the contents of Detroiters’ dinner plates rank a close second.

“I drive 40 minutes to be able to eat the way I want to eat,” she says. “When they say the produce in Detroit is of lesser quality, it’s absolutely true. And not only is it not as good, we’re paying more for it, and that’s just not right.”

Which is precisely where Atkinson sees the beauty of the program: While many of the crops will be eaten by people who grew them, a sizeable amount will be sold at the growing network of small neighborhood markets run by Greening of Detroit, the organization that houses the GPRC.*

The new focus on farms marks a shift for Greening, which was founded by a museum director’s wife as a tree-planting project in the early 1980s. A few years ago, the current executive director, Rebecca Salminen Witt helped oversee a broader transition to “anything you plant in the ground,” and sought out Atkinson, who’d made a name for herself by starting an urban gardening project in Flint.

“We joke and say she’s the famous garden person, but she is,” says Salminen Witt. “Every time I go out to speak, someone invariably approaches me and says, ‘Boy, I met that Ashley. She’s a firecracker.” Within the next year, Greening plans to double its urban agriculture staff(who also conduct nutrition education to help foster demand for fresh food), and to devote a full one-third of the time and resources to city farms.

Atkinson has one more trick up her sleeve. This fall, under the label “Grown in Detroit,” GRPC-grown produce will be for sale at the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, a stretch of several city blocks filled with wholesale meat and produce vendors.

While her gardeners will sell alongside rural farmers at the market, Atkinson isn’t too worried about the competition. Before encouraging her gardeners to start selling produce, she helped them conduct a local market survey to see if the venture would fly. The verdict?

“We had way more people who were interested in buying … than we had producers,” says Atkinson. “For every pound of produce we grow, there are probably ten or 15 people that want to buy it.”

*The gardening effort is a collaborative project that also includes Earthworks Farm, which is run by the local Capuchin order of Catholic friars; the Detroit Agriculture Network; and Michigan State University’s agriculture extension offices.

Story by Tracie McMillan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Continue reading this series

Soil to stoops: Detroit

Soil to stoops: Philadelphia

Soil to stoops: Oakland

Soil to stoops: Brooklyn

Soil to stoops: New Orleans