Fresh, Fresh, Exciting: Near East Side Dwellers Get Boxes of Green Goodness

Detroit's Near East Side boasts an overabundance of gas stations and liquor-lotto marts, where residents are more apt to find rows of Colt 45 and Fritos, rather than bundles of fresh greens or bushels of apples. These neighborhoods are in general a prime example of a community in the city without easy access to quality grocery stores and fresh produce.

That's not the case this summer, however.

Kale, zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers are just some of the veggies packing a nutritional punch this summer for Near East Side residents as part of a new initiative called Fresh Food Share -- a program that brings boxes of fresh produce to locals who contend with the absence of nearby grocery stores. At the same time, the program is building a stronger sense of community within a racially, ethnically and economically diverse area of the city.

Greenbacks for greens

Anyone can purchase a 20-pound box of produce for $17, empowering residents to have control over their own food needs and food budget -- and sending a clear message that this is not a charity program. In fact, the program is a conduit for community building in an area where residents from varying neighborhoods and backgrounds might feel unrelated and lack a sense of unity.  

Fresh Food Share, launched in June, operates a bit like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Residents pre-order boxes of produce at the beginning of the month, picking them up later in the month at one of four community locations.

Funded with a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Fresh Food Share is operated by the Green Ribbon Collaborative, a partnership of three nonprofits: The Greening of Detroit, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, and Eastern Market Corp.

The Greening of Detroit, with a mission to create a greener Detroit through planting, advocacy, and education, is responsible for collecting 10 percent of the produce for the shares from community gardens within the city of Detroit. Since Greening already coordinates with 800 urban gardeners within Detroit city limits, the program is a good fit.

Greening also produces a newsletter that accompanies the shares each month, offering nutrition information, recipes and other helpful information about the items offered in each share.

Eastern Market is responsible for collecting the remaining 90 percent of the produce from regional growers when available, and accessing produce from elsewhere when it's not seasonably viable to buy from Southeast Michigan farmers.

Gleaners, which last year collected, sorted and distributed 28.7 million pounds emergency food, is responsible for Fresh Food Share's collection and distribution logistics, including the coordination of volunteers to pack the share boxes. In June alone, Fresh Food Shares went to 102 households, reaching 237 individuals with more than 2,800 pounds of produce.

Near East Side assets and challenges

The Community Foundation is investing in Detroit's Near East Side -- an 11-square-mile area bounded by I-94 to the north, Jefferson to the south, Woodward to the west, and McClellan to the east -- because of its viability and diversity. The foundation's Detroit Neighborhood Fund supports groups engaged in building cohesion between neighborhoods and the surrounding growth areas of Midtown, Downtown and the East Riverfront District -- creating momentum for an area with nearly 64,000 residents.  

"I think the Near East Side captures good cross-section of the city of Detroit," says Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corp., which manages and promotes the market for the City of Detroit. "There are affluent areas and areas where there is a lot of economic distress, so it's a really good pilot area from that perspective."

When the Community Foundation conducted a community profile of the Near East Side, residents identified "lack of access to essential goods" and "a shortage of healthy, fresh food products for sale in the area" as challenges. Like many urban areas, food options in the community mostly consist of convenience stores, gas stations and independent small markets that offer little healthy food options. Fresh Food Share distribution sites -- Hannan House, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, St. Charles Borromeo Parish and Detroit Waldorf School -- on the other hand, are close to many residential neighborhoods.

While Eastern Market is located within the Near East Side boundaries, it's still not accessible to all residents. "There are a lot of people who have poor mobility, so figuring out how to get good food out to people who can't come here is as important as getting people to come to Eastern Market," says Carmody.

Think global, eat local

While expanding residents' choices for healthier food, the Green Ribbon Collaborative also hopes to enlighten and educate people about the food distribution system. "It's important for people to know where there food comes from," says Stacey Malasky, Fresh Food Share program coordinator. She says the program will help people learn more about supporting small, local farmers, instead of large-scale and commercial farmers.  

From Greening's perspective, Fresh Food Share demonstrates that "the food system in Detroit is not so broken," says Ashley Atkinson, director of urban agriculture. "When we put together the Green Ribbon Collaborative, we really tried to create it with organizations that could address all parts of the food system so we could model, within a defined space of the city, an ideal food system."

As part of the Green Ribbon Collaborative, The Greening of Detroit is conducting Farm to Fork tours that allow people to better understand the food distribution system and build support for local gardeners and farmers. The tours journey through a cross-section of community gardens; Eastern Market, one of the nation's largest and most diverse urban farm markets; and Gleaners, the largest distributor of emergency food in Michigan.

Plans are also in place to conduct cooking demonstrations at the distribution sites using the produce provided in the Fresh Food Shares to teach participants how to prepare foods they may have not prepared before.

The cooking demonstrations will help to build social networks around food to bolster a sense of community. In the Community Foundation profile, Near East Side residents said they wanted more involvement in their community and more neighborhood recreational and cultural activities. "We're thinking of food as a way to help bridge communities and bring people together," says Malasky. "That may be idealistic, but it sure seems like a good idea."

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer. Send feedback here.


all photos taken at Detroit Waldorf School.

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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