Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cooperative earning

Is it really Tuesday? Has it really been a week since my last posting? As the weather's turned cooler I've been lingering under the flannel sheets longer than usual and my laptop's all the way over on the other side of the... studio apartment. (It's still hard for me to believe a year ago I was huddled in a TENT with ICE on it, wearing every item of clothing I could dig out of Ollie's panniers, and biking in 40mph Midwestern headwinds... and yet still seemed to be better about keeping up with the blogging. Hmmm.) In the midst of much snuggling and soup making and trying to reintegrate back into DC's sustainable food scene, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Detroit, a city with which even now, nearly two weeks after my departure, I find myself still inexplicably smitten. Well, actually, there are a number of reasons, but the big one I can sum up in one word: Community.

During the Great Depression, Americans came together to rebuild a broken country. (Civilian Community Corps, anyone?) Most agree that our nation came out stronger, though there are some who argue that the resulting massive industrialization drove us toward the economic mess we are in now. More recently, in former manufacturing-based towns like Detroit, there are inklings of a better future for our once again economically depressed country. Each person and group I met with during my time in town seemed to subscribe to a common belief: it takes a village to raise itself up. Groups like The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Earthworks Urban Farm, and The Greening of Detroit, and projects like The Garden Resource Program Collaborative and Grown in Detroit work together to provide opportunities and support to those growing, distributing, and consuming food around the city. They are empowering folks with skills and income, while the increase in small food-producing plots and markets around the city is creating greater access to fresh, healthy food (and a more beautiful landscape) for residents.

In modern Detroit, in spite of a deeply entrenched culture of disenfranchisement and a mass exodus of people and businesses in recent decades, there are amazing examples of community, of shared knowledge and resources, for among the 900+ family, school, market, and community gardens scattered about the city, folks young and old, rich and poor, natives and transplants, black, white, hispanic, arab, and others are coming together to feed themselves and each other.

(Yes, that was a one-sentence paragraph. Eat your heart out, James Joyce.)

When members of a community truly work together toward a common goal, everybody wins. Those of you who have worked in the field of public education are familiar with the term "cooperative learning" -- a strategy whereby small groups of students with different ability levels work together to help each other understand and complete tasks together. In Detroit, I saw a variation on this: food-based "cooperative earning."

It's not like I've never heard of farmers pooling food to sell collectively before -- remember Appalachian Sustainable Development? -- but the idea came about very differently within the Detroit community. At first a handful of gardeners here grew food for themselves. Then, realizing they had more than they needed, they gave away excess to their neighbors and nearby soup kitchens. It was only after still more abundant produce kept growing (and under far from ideal conditions, mind you, as in addition to quite the challenging climate there are some funny stipulations regarding how land can be used within city limits) that neighbors began to think about selling it at the market. Since 2006, through the citywide Grown in Detroit project, hundreds of small-scale gardeners are selling their excess crops cooperatively. Depending on the amount of food contributed and sold each week, these small farmers earn a percentage of the group's sales. God forbid somewhere as all-American as Detroit be accused of espousing communist principles, but the pooling of produce and the sharing of risks and profits here among neighbors is creating a more stable food system and small-scale income for many in the area... and it's something to celebrate.

And celebrate they do. Here's a pic of some of the local farmers I had a chance to chat with at the Wayne State University farmers' market one afternoon. We celebrated everything from herbal remedies to seasonal recipes to local restaurants to growing mushrooms on old armchairs. (I'm serious. And I'm totally bummed I didn't make it out to see the shroom chair at D-town Farm during this first trip to Detroit.) I'm looking forward to seeing some of these faces and learning more about their work at the upcoming Community Food Security Coalition meeting later this month in New Orleans....


  1. Awesome information about Detroit. I greatly appreciate it out here from Oakland!

  2. I love the James Joyce reference. Nice.


Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti