An urban farming “agrihood” in Detroit’s North End has received a deluge of attention – both positive and negative.
The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, or MUFI, is a nonprofit that proposed what they called “America’s first sustainable urban agrihood” around their two acre farm in the North End neighborhood of Detroit.
An agrihood is a neighborhood that grows around a farm, often created in a rural area – but MUFI’s proposal is for an agriculture-centered community in the middle of an urban neighborhood.
“It’s no secret that the north end is facing a lot of development pressure right now, and how we choose to implement that is going to have profound impact on the people here and the people that are moving here,” said MUFI’s co-founder and president, Tyson Gersh. “We truly think that the way we are approaching this is going to be inclusive. Everybody is going to be able to win together.”
MUFI grows an average of more than 20,000 pounds of produce each year, with a large portion of that produce going to local food pantries and households. The farm also gives away free produce on Saturdays.
“Over the last four years, we’ve grown from an urban garden that provides fresh produce for our residents to a diverse, agricultural campus that has helped sustain the neighborhood, attracted new residents and area investment,” said Gersh.
Not everyone is thrilled about MUFI’s model for urban farming, however. The Oakland Avenue Farmers’ Market, which is open in the North End on Saturdays, has to compete with MUFI’s offer of free food, which risks undermining the neighborhood market, which has worked to supply fresh produce and food education to a historically underserved community.
Food justice consultant Shane Bernardo argued that MUFI’s free food initiative was combatting the symptoms of food insecurity, rather than the root issues of poverty.
Bryan Debus / Flickr
“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,” said Bernardo.
“That’s what sets charity programs like MUFI apart from more grassroots, self-determined models like Oakland Avenue, D-Town Farms, and Feedom Freedom,” he added. “As long as we only address the symptoms of food security and poverty, we also perpetuate the disparities of power that create them.”
Some from the neighborhood had concerns about the “colonialist” nature of MUFI’s initiatives in the North End.
“I’m not in favor of putting a wall around the North End and not letting any white people in, but people need to come here in a way that shows a humility and respect for those who live here already,” said a property owner from the North End about newcomers to the 90-percent black neighborhood.
The future of current residents of the North End is unclear, with some fearing higher rent prices that could price out longtime residents if MUFI’s agrihood plan is successful.
Gersh responded to concerns by saying he would like to see Detroit implement rent control to protect the current North End residents. The nonprofit is also building 320-square-foot “tiny homes” from shipping containers and other materials donated by General Motors to place in the neighborhood’s empty lots as affordable housing options.
Not everyone is convinced, however. Bernardo argued that the companies that were backing MUFI should instead “invest into work that actually shifts power and creates long-term structural change.”
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