Near the end of his sophomore year, horticulture senior James Manning came to a sudden realization — he had no idea how to grow his own food.
“You learn that food, water, shelter … those are the things we need,” Manning said. “But in school, we don’t learn about growing food or what a carrot looks like before it comes out of the ground.”
Manning, a vegetarian who fostered an interest in learning about where his food was coming from, embarked on a trip across America and worked on diversified vegetable farms in Maine and Georgia. He now is back in East Lansing, but he hasn’t had to give up his green thumb.
Manning, along with half a dozen other volunteers, spent last Saturday working on the Urbandale Farm Project, a nonprofit project by retired MSU professor Linda Anderson and current professor Laura DeLind.
The pair opened the lot for cultivation about a month ago.
From an empty lot on South Hayford Street in Lansing, the property has transformed into Lansing’s first urban farm, complete with rows of cultivated earth containing squash, tomatoes, collard greens and broccoli, among other vegetables.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing what we’re doing here,” Manning said, “Everyone coming together on their own free will to build something together, something as meaningful as food. Growing it and eating it, it’s really powerful.”
Cities such as Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago have some form of urban agriculture, and the gardens are becoming more popular for reasons that are as much economic as they are social, said John Biernbaum, a professor in the horticulture department.
“I think it’s both economic in terms of needing to have more affordable access to food,” Biernbaum said. “From a health standpoint, we’re getting more and more information (about) how the food we eat relates to our health, and some of that has been there for a while.”
*The issue *
Across the road from the Urbandale Farm Project, Ski Jackson, an East Lansing resident, was unaware of what developments were happening with the formerly vacant lot owned by Ingham County Land Bank.
When she found out, her interest piqued. Although organic foods used to play a bigger role in Jackson’s diet, she said she had cut back on purchasing them for financial reasons.
“I usually get (my fruits and vegetables) from Kroger or Meijer,” Jackson said. “I would rather buy organic if I could afford it, but it’s usually higher (priced).”
The area Urbandale Farm Project is located in is considered a “food desert,” or an area where fresh fruits and vegetables are not easily accessible, Anderson said.
“We are miles away from the closest grocery store,” she said. “What’s closer here is convenience stores, liquor stores, fast food outlets. If they’re your only source of food, there’s not a lot of fresh food there.”
Cost also can be an issue, Anderson said.
“If you don’t have a lot of money and you’re trying to fill yourself up and you’re tying to keep your kids from feeling hungry, you’re not going to be able to buy healthy food,” she said.
To encourage people to buy the food, Urbandale will sell its produce at two-thirds the price of a local farmers market to residents and half off to residents who volunteer in the garden.
In March, Monica Taylor left her home in Newark, Delaware to come work an organic farm in Michigan with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a networking organization for volunteers interested in farming activities.
Taylor volunteered at Urbandale on Saturday, placing tomato plants in the soil one by one and carefully covering them with dirt.
A year ago, she changed her diet to completely organic foods and said she won’t be going back any time soon.
“It’s totally rejuvenating when you feel your body not with preservatives,” Taylor said. “I can tell the difference. I feel healthier, I feel more in tune with everything. My mind feels clear, it’s a more satisfying lifestyle.”
A concern for health is one of the driving forces in the growing popularity of urban agriculture, Anderson said.
“More and more consumers are getting concerned about where their food comes from,” Anderson said. Movies such as “Food Inc.” and “Fresh” have promoted healthier eating, and first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity also has advocated a healthier lifestyle, Anderson said.
In 2003 the Greening of Detroit had 80 gardens throughout the city. That number has risen to about 1,300 gardens.
The group, a movement aimed at promoting the forestation of Detroit’s neighborhoods, has grown 50 percent in the last three to four years, said Ashley Atkinson, director of urban agriculture for the group.
Food the Detroit gardens provide is a secondary benefit to the social and economic yields, Atkinson said.
“The initiative to Detroiters helps form social bonds and connect people,” she said. “Those social bonds are known to ease crime and decrease perception of crime.”
The gardens also can help to improve the value of the land, Atkinson said.
“A vacant lot can decrease values by 17 percent,” she said. “Beautiful landscaping can increase it 30 percent.”
Although urban agriculture provides low-cost, healthy ways for people to eat, part of the enjoyment comes from the simple act of planting, Biernbaum said.
“I think this is a trend that’s been coming over the last five to 10 years,” he said.