On Urban Farming and 'Colonialism' in Detroit's North End Neighborhood

Sourced from the Detroit Metro Times

The Oakland Avenue Farmers' Market in Detroit's North End is one of those small-but-mighty neighborhood markets that accomplishes a lot with a little.

Each Saturday, it offers fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods in a historically low-income and black neighborhood where such options aren't readily available.

Just as important is its contribution to the neighborhood's economy. Most of the profits generated since it launched in 2009 fund the adjacent Oakland Avenue Farm. That operation provides 13 full- and part-time time jobs that pay a living wage — also rare in the North End — in addition to teaching residents to grow and cook their own food. So supporting the Oakland Market is a small contribution to the neighborhood's economy.

However it has competition from another farm, and the Oakland Market can't beat its prices. That's because the other farm — Michigan Urban Farming Initiative — is giving away free produce every Saturday. It's run by Tyson Gersh, and, for obvious reasons, his decision to hand out produce when the Oakland Market sells food creates tension.

But it's not an isolated situation. Oakland Farm executive director Jerry Hebron and other leaders in the urban farming community say MUFI's approach and practices — intentionally or not — are undermining the city's entire urban farming movement.

Gersh brings in a lot of corporate volunteers and others from around southeast Michigan to work on several acres of city-owned land, and he receives donations from companies like GM, BASF, MiracleGro, and Stanley Black&Decker. So he's in a position to give away free food.

MUFI is also different from the Oakland Farm and Detroit's other urban farms in that its mission doesn't appear to be about food security as much as development. Instead of just a farm, Gersh is attempting to engineer an "agrihood."

Simply put, an agrihood is a fashionable urban planning concept in which a community is designed and built around a functioning urban farm that Gersh says "drives up real estate values." They exist to some degree in Detroit on Farnsworth Street or Banglatown, minus the focus on real estate value. Elsewhere in the nation, people usually build agrihoods in rural settings. Gersh's development is billed as the first sustainable agrihood and is the first in the city with an active public relations component, so he gets a lot of positive media attention from local, national, and worldwide outlets.

"I want to be Elon Musk when I grow up," Gersh says with a laugh when we discuss MUFI's branding during an interview at the North End house he rents.

But his approach and ideas are raising questions about the purpose of urban agriculture in Detroit. Should it aim to improve food security, strengthen local economies, provide jobs, and empower longtime residents? Or is it about giving away free food?

The latter charitable model may be well-intentioned, but it only addresses the symptoms, not the root causes of poverty, says Shane Bernardo, a former farmer who now works as an independent food justice and racial equity consultant.
"Neocolonial projects like MUFI demonstrate that well-intent is not enough to address the systemic issues around food security and poverty. Food security and poverty have less to do with access and more to do with structural and historical disparities around power," he says. "That's what sets charity programs like MUFI apart from more grassroots, self-determined models like Oakland Avenue, D-Town Farms, and Feedom Freedom. As long as we only address the symptoms of food security and poverty, we also perpetuate the disparities of power that create them."

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