Fresh food is a luxury, but these Michigan programs are making it more accessible to all

This article is part of State of Health, a series examining health disparities, how they affect Michigan's children and seniors, and the innovative solutions being developed to address them. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.


A lot of Sue Melke's neighbors at Chidester Place Apartments in Ypsilanti do their grocery shopping at nearby convenience stores. Many walk or ride the bus for transportation, so frozen burritos and premade subs can make for an easy meal. But Melke's not impressed.


"It's garbage!" she says.

Ypsilanti Mobile Farm Stand patron Sue Melke.

Chidester offers affordable housing for seniors and disabled residents on fixed incomes – people for whom transportation and affordability can make buying fresh produce a challenge. So when the nonprofit Growing Hope started bringing its Ypsilanti Mobile Farm Stand to Chidester weekly last summer (thanks, in part, to Melke's persistent requests), she did what she could to help get the word out, including making and distributing her own flyers. She's been pleasantly surprised.


"Just seeing people come and get stuff that is fresh is wonderful," she says. "They're much more receptive than I expected, and I'm so pleased."


Launched in 2015, the Mobile Farm Stand was introduced to overcome two common major barriers to fresh food access – lack of mobility and low income. It's just one example of the many ways organizations in communities across Michigan are helping to close the gap when it comes to what we eat.


Empowered for growth


With no full-service grocery stores in Ypsilanti's city limits, Growing Hope program director Erica Bloom says many residents live in what could be called a "food desert," although she doesn't like that term. In addition, about 30 percent of the city's residents live in poverty, making it more difficult to get fresh, healthy food.


"When we talk about access, we're talking about more than having produce (in your local market)," she says. "You can have access, but you might not know how to prepare the food. You might not be able to afford the food. It might not be healthy food; it might be processed or high in sodium or sugar."


Growing Hope launched 15 years ago with a mission of setting up and supporting school and community gardens. Since then, it's also purchased and renovated a one-acre demonstration farm, helped start one farmers market and revive another, and developed several educational programs, from youth gardening to classes on how to start a food business.Produce at the Ypsilanti Mobile Farm Stand.


"We're really trying to empower people and educate them, so they feel like they have the knowledge and the skills to be able to to grow their own food in their own gardens," Bloom says. "They learn about that by coming to our farm and us going to their homes and installing gardens."


Through collaborations with partners like Habitat For Humanity and the Washtenaw County Health Department, Growing Hope identified local seniors as being particularly vulnerable when it comes to food security, which led to the creation of the Mobile Farm Stand. The small, pop-up market also brings fresh produce to Ypsilanti's West Willow Community Resource Center and Clark East Towers in Ypsilanti Township each Friday from July through October. It started making weekly stops at Chidester this year.


The farm stand, like Ypsilanti's farmers markets, is meant to be accessible to all income levels. Payments accepted include several government assistance programs, including SNAP/EBT (Bridge Cards), Double Up Food Bucks, Senior Project FRESH, and Prescription for Health.

Ypsilanti Mobile Farm Stand patron Robert Henderson.

On a Friday in late September, the stand offered an assortment of staples – tomatoes, potatoes, greens – as well as apples, plums, and Asian pears, all locally grown. Robert Henderson picked up some heirloom tomatoes and other items to supplement his regular grocery delivery orders. Henderson is diabetic and moved into Chidester after having his legs amputated at the knee a few years ago. He can take a cab to the store, but there's a limit on how many bags he can bring. The farm stand gives him the rare chance to see what he's getting in person before buying it.

Ypsilanti Mobile Farm Stand patron Eugene Wheeler.

Eugene Wheeler was excited to use up the last of his seasonal Project FRESH coupons before they expired at the end of October. Wheeler also visits the local farmers markets, but for the rest of his grocery shopping, he buses from Chidester to the transit center in downtown Ypsilanti, where he catches another bus to the grocery store. He's a people person who likes getting out, but some days the 67-year-old feels less up to it.

On this visit to the farm stand, he laughed and smiled often while talking with stand workers and other residents. "It's a nice way to be social," he says. "I really love it. It makes my day go better."

A joyful experience

For the last 10 years, the Food Systems Program of Lansing's NorthWest Initiative (NWI) has been working with elementary schools to maintain gardens and lead monthly in-class lessons for children. The nonprofit organization offers emergency services and basic needs to low-income residents living in the area bordered by the Grand River on the north, east, and south, as well as empowerment programs to help families out of poverty.

With visits to nearly 50 classes per month at four participating schools, NWI's program uses hands-on lessons, nutrition education, garden training and experience, and afterschool and summer garden clubs to teach kids about food production and healthy eating.

"We're trying to get the kids familiar with these foods that are good for you but then also show them ways to grow them themselves," says program manager Stephanie Onderchannin.

Through established relationships with the schools, Onderchannin says program staffers see a lot of siblings and get to know families. Older students often volunteer to work with younger ones, and groups of cousins have attended the garden club together over the summer.

"We've done a really intentional job of crafting our program so it's fun for the kids, instead of lecturing at them about things they should be doing," Onderchannin says. "It's more of an experience of, 'Hey, look how fun it can be to grow and make and eat healthy food.'"

It seems to be working. Onderchannin hears from parents about their kids looking up recipes on YouTube at home. One student made pickles all summer and kept bringing in jars of them for people to taste. 

The program also spends a lot of time promoting resources to families, including ways to acquire free plants and seeds for starting their own gardens, and the NWI's own food distribution pantry. The end goal is to show families how they can implement healthier practices at home without preaching at them.

"Making healthy eating and growing your own food a joyful experience is a big part of that," Onderchannin says. "There's been a legacy of (health promotion) being paternalistic and judgy. We very intentionally are not that way."

Beyond security

With a mission of serving a geographic area and population as wide and varied as Detroit's, Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) co-director Ashley Atkinson says the nonprofit's efforts rely on lots of volunteer hours and "sweat equity" to ensure its services are available to as many residents as possible.

According to its 2017 Annual Report, KGD helped support more than 1,500 gardens last year, including more than 800 backyard gardens, 400 community groups reclaiming vacant land, 130 school gardens, and 100 market-focused gardens. 

Food security is certainly a concern in a city where systemic racism, bad planning, and aggressive blight remediation have left some neighborhoods without reliable infrastructure, let alone grocery stores. But KGD's stated mission is to make Detroit a food sovereign city – one where residents not only have access to good, healthy food, but also a say in where it comes from and who benefits from growing and selling it.

"Everything we do is really designed to give Detroiters a voice in what's grown and what's distributed," Atkinson says.

Hearing that voice means making sure the organization's many services are accessible to all community members, no matter their income, education, age, or what technology they have available.

Membership in the program costs $10 per year for access to hundreds of dollars in resources ("Our nickname is 'the best deal in town,'" Atkinson says). For anyone who can't afford that, the fee is waived with no questions asked. 

Thousands of KGD members either lack reliable internet access or simply prefer to communicate by phone. To keep them informed, the organization makes an estimated 10,000 reminder phone calls each year, in addition to its email, social media, and printed mail campaigns (which are also bilingual). KGD content is also intentionally hands-on and straightforward to ensure varying literacy and education levels don't pose a barrier.

Geographically, KGD spreads its programming across the city throughout the year and coordinates events near safe, well-lit parking to encourage involvement.

As interest in Detroit real estate continues to grow, KGD has also helped ensure that "guerrilla" gardeners who staked their plots on borrowed land with little value as recently as five years ago aren't at risk to lose the time – and money – they have already put into it. Today, nearly 77 percent of KGD's gardeners and farmers own the land they tend, thanks in part to the organization's efforts – and "every intern we can get our hands on," Atkinson says, – to help those who need it through the process of purchasing their land.

KGD also puts a large emphasis on families with children. Programming ranges from school gardens for preschool and elementary age kids through paid summer apprenticeships for 18- and 19-year-olds. The organization also grows and distributes transplants for Detroit Public Schools' school gardens and trains teachers in gardening education.

"The scientific evidence these days points to little kids developing their relationship with food by age 3," Atkinson says. "It's just like learning words and developing that vocabulary. It's so critically important that kids see parents eating and enjoying fruits and vegetables."

"Learn to argue over beans and carrots"

And gardening does more to promote healthy living than produce nutritious foods. While recent studies have shown loneliness to be as unhealthy as smoking or obesity, Atkinson says gardens can be "magical" environments for rebuilding our social commons.

More than 40 percent of KGD's members report having made 10 or more new friends through the gardening network. Atkinson says those friends tend to be more diverse than those people make in their daily routines.

"You can develop trusting relationships with people who are very different than you in the garden setting," she says. "Learn to argue over beans and carrots and where they should be planted and when. Then, when you hear things in the news about police shootings or political candidates, you can have really tough discussions in a diverse setting that maybe you wouldn't have other places."

Back at Ypsilanti's Chidester Place Apartments, longtime tenant Judy Winter says just having easy access to fresh produce helps residents look out for their neighbors. They share extra food and pick up items for people not well enough to get outside during farm stand visits.

"It makes it real easy to be generous and kind to each other," she says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos by
Doug Coombe.

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