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Michael Sigman

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Urban Farming's Detroit Roots Blossom Into Global Vision

Posted: 07/25/11 08:38 PM ET

What do Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and Home Depot have in common with Prince, Snoop Dogg and Richard Lewis?

Would you believe farming? Specifically, Urban Farming, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people create economically stable communities by growing their own food on unused city properties.

Let's get the gardening puns out of the way at the outset: Rooted in Detroit, Urban Farming broke ground in 2005, planting the seeds for a fast-growing grassroots organization that's blossomed to reap over 43,000 locations around the world, plowing forward with new sites springing up every day.

It started when former Prince protégé/singer-songwriter Taja Sevelle -- who by age 15 had lived in a city, on a farm and in a remote forest near the Canadian border -- moved to Detroit to record a CD for Sony. The deep poverty and vast vacant lots in the recession-scarred town inspired her to put her music career on the back burner and create an enterprise that would tackle the problem with a long-term, sustainable vision.

Taja's longtime friend Joyce Lapinsky, who hadn't so much as planted a flower, caught the spirit and left a successful music biz career to become Urban Farming's program development director/strategic alliances and board co-chair, based in Los Angeles. Partnerships with the above-mentioned mega-corporations ensued. (It's true that you can't plant a Triscuit, but Kraft's participation helps to spotlight the additive-free healthfulness of that product, while Coke's has to do with conserving water.)

"Urban Farming is one organization among several in Detroit that are reclaiming unused land and planting school gardens, community gardens, backyard gardens, and small-scale urban farms," Oran B. Hesterman told me. Hesterman is himself an expert on the subject -- founder of the nonprofit Fair Food Network, with offices in Detroit and Ann Arbor, he's also the author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All (PublicAffairs).

"In some cases, these urban agriculture projects are providing much-needed fresh vegetables for families. In some cases, they are also providing entrepreneurship opportunities for young people who are tending and harvesting the plots and then selling some of the produce at local farmers markets."

Urban Farming Health and Wellness Chef Mike 'Jaz' Travis and Detroit District Missionary Teretha Moore have also been part of the team from the early days. According to Moore, the message is getting through:

"I have brought numerous people to the Gardens who are in great need of food, including single mothers who need food for their children, seniors who have no access to healthy food and are incapacitated. The Urban Farming free plant giveaway has inspired and enabled so many people to start their own gardens and become more self sufficient."

Urban Farming, whose mission also includes encouraging people to grow their own food at home, offers free workshops to raise awareness about green business and to provide job training and placement opportunities. The organization is branching out -- sorry, one more bad pun -- to cities across the U.S. and globally, but its headquarters remain in the city that may have been the first to benefit from urban farming. In 1893, Detroiters helped the city climb out of depression by growing veggies in vacant lots dubbed Pingree's Potato Patches after mayor Haze Pingree.

In Taja's forthcoming book, The Garden Song, she points to the estimate that poverty costs the United States upwards of $500 billion per year. Think lost productivity, increased health-care costs and crime for starters. A good reason for gardeners and the gardening-challenged alike to pitch in.

Which brings us to Snoop Dogg and Richard Lewis. The former, who got involved through Urban Farming's board chair Bigg Slice, offers donors a chance to hang with Snoop in the recording studio.

As for Lewis, who happens to be Joyce's husband, I figured that like me and all the other neurotic Jewish guys I know, the closest he'd ever come to farming would be the funny farm. But not only is he an Urban Farming advisory board member, he's been spotted, shovel in hand, tilling the soil at the Urban Farming plot at Veteran's Garden in Los Angeles. The mind reels at what LD would say if he sauntered by.

 

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