June 15, 2015 8:47 pm
Updated: June 15, 2015 9:23 pm

Urban farming: not just growing food but communities

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WATCH ABOVE: Urban farms provide fresh food to local residents, farmers markets and restaurants, but they are also changing neighbourhoods and lives. Allison Vuchnich reports.

Urban agriculture is growing — fast. Many large scale urban farms strive to be a force for change in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods where access to affordable, healthy food can be challenging. The farms also offer employment, education and community building.

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Global News

“The scale of what we have created is significant, it’s huge,” Michael Ableman from Sole Food Farms, told Global News. “You can have a large scale, agriculture scale, enterprise in the city and have that work and function and provide employment and provide volumes of food to people. That’s our goal, the jobs and the production volumes of food are very important to us.”

READ MORE: Do you want to know what’s in your food? Canadians want more transparency

Ableman spoke to Global News at Sole Food’s one-acre urban orchard in Vancouver. Considered the largest in North America, the land used to be an abandoned lot. Sole Food operates four locations totalling close to 4.5 acres in Vancouver with a fifth site in the works.

WATCH:  Michael Ableman talks about Sole Food Farms large scale urban agriculture projects in Vancouver and the potential to transform not just the landscape.

The orchard is in the Downtown Eastside, where many struggle with drug addiction, poverty and homelessness; the orchard with its pears, apples, quince, figs and persimmons creates a culinary contrast. The farm provides food to local residents and community kitchens, but it also supplies farmers markets and close to 30 restaurants.

“I don’t want people buying our food out of some sense of charity,” said Ableman, “I want them to buy our food because it’s the best quality food.”

Growing quality food is also very important at The Black Creek Community Farm, located in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto — an area with a history of poverty, crime and high food insecurity where access to quality affordable food is difficult. The seven acre farm is nestled away, off a busy noisy street; inside it provides an oasis and limitless possibilities.

READ MORE: Artificial ingredients: Americans demanded change and got it, Canadians not so much

“Having this farm in the Jane and Finch community it really emphasizes healthy, affordable, accessible food, which is very important,” Abena Offeh-Gyimah told Global News.

Offer-Gyimah grew up nearby and is now the youth internship coordinator. “Coming here and seeing this farm really changed our own perspective of our own community. We thought ‘Wow, we have this space here in our community that we can grow food?’ And this is incredible. I think having this space changes community members’ relationship to food. Because this is something that they are proud of, something that they can walk to, something that they can bring children to.”

WATCH: Abena Offeh-Gyimah from The Black Creek Community Farm speaks about the surrounding community and how some residents do not have access to healthy and affordable food and the role urban farming and the BCCF play in addressing that inequality and disparity in the Jane and Finch community and beyond.

Black Creek Farm grows fields and greenhouses of vegetables, but the farm also runs a number of innovative projects, including teaching school children about farming, community outreach, as well as beekeeping, food forests and alternative growing approaches. There is also a resident’s council who are involved in decision-making and planning.

Interactive map: What’s your favourite farmers’ market?

The farm leases the land from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, in a city where land is scarce. Outside the entrance the busy city carries on. “The sanctuary of coming in here and hearing the birds and the leaves and looking at the trees,” farm manager Alvis Julian told Global News. “[It] is necessary for the balance of life.”

WATCH: Alvis Julien from The Black Creek Community Farm talks about growing food, but also about the role the farm can play in building healthy communities, food security and breaking down barriers.

To try and understand the urban farming movement, Global News travelled to Detroit, Michigan. The city has become an epicentre for urban agriculture.

The once booming city hit hard times and with high unemployment, residents left. Driving around Detroit the ghosts are present, abandoned homes sit in ruins.

READ MORE: Seeds of crisis? Historic boom for farmland raises red flags

According to the Detroit Future City Report, the city has an estimated 52 square kilometres (20 square miles) of vacant land — close to the size of Manhattan — so urban farming is filling some of the vacant and abandoned land.

Picking strawberries in her trademark pink hat is Pinky Jones. She’s a volunteer and past farm manager at The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. This is the neighbourhood where she grew up.

“I grew up over there in that blue house,” Jones told Global News.

READ MORE: Who do Canadians trust with their food? Local growers get top marks, new poll finds

The non-profit organization grows food and uses sustainable agriculture as a gateway into community development.

They sell the produce to restaurants, at farmers markets and to vendors. They also provide fresh produce to community kitchens and every Saturday, local residents come to get produce. It is weighed and they donate what they can. If they cannot pay, they still get their fresh food.

Jones said access to fresh food is a challenge. “The closest store is about two miles (3.2 kilometres) down the road. A lot of people don’t have cars, a lot of people in the motor city do not have motors,” said Jones. “If you are elderly… how much can you carry?”

WATCH: Pinky Jones from The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative explains how important the project and the food grown there is to the community. She now volunteers at the urban farm in the same Detroit neighbourhood where she grew up and still lives.

The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative has had more than 5,000 volunteers working on the farm.

They plan on turning an abandoned building into a community center, as well as a sensory garden to teach children “to get accustomed to agriculture,” volunteer Mike Swift told Global News. “Our last project will be to try and put a cafe/restaurant right here and use that as a revenue source to fund the operation.”

“People think we are just potatoes and tomatoes but it’s about the community is what it is, making it a better place and being able to sustain it and bringing people together.”

WATCH: Mike Swift, a volunteer with The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative talks about what is next for the project including a community center and more resources for the Detroit neighbourhood, and how urban farming is about way more than food.

REPLACING BLIGHT WITH BEAUTY

Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms grew up in Detroit. He spoke to Global News in Hantz Woodland a tree orchard in Detroit’s east side.

“People began leaving the city back in 1950s, about 1,000 people per month. Every month. And by the 1970s, it just reached a tipping point and so many people left. The neighbourhoods took on this vacant feel,” said Score. “Over time it became just a blighted thicket that attracted crime, illegal dumping and people who lived here didn’t want to stay. Even more people left.”

Another local resident and successful businessman John Hantz decided he was sick of the urban blight and waiting for someone else to fix it, believing private enterprise also has a role in Detroit’s renewal and urban agriculture, he has purchased 180 acres of vacant land so far.

Score and Hantz’s employees have cleared the land of decades of debris, overgrown brush, removed the blight and transformed the space, and with the help of thousands of volunteers, planted thousands of trees in urban tree orchards.

WATCH: Mike Score president of Hantz Farms and local resident Ray Anthony Anderson talk about the transformation they have seen in Detroit as a result of urban agriculture.

“We knew that it was possible to use agriculture as a tool to eliminate blight in an urban centre. It’s cost effective, it’s replicable,” Score told Global News. “We can replace blight with beauty. But when we did it, there were days that I would come out and look and just say ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to be this great.'”

“So we went from an undesirable place, maybe the worst of the worst in the City of Detroit to a place of beauty. [It’s] much cleaner and safer,” said Score.

Mrs. Davis sits on her front porch looking out on one of the Hantz’s tree orchards. Davis said before her street was so unsafe she would not allow her grandchildren to play outside. “You should have seen it before they came…it was horrible,” Davis told Global News. “[Now] I just sit back and enjoy. It’s wonderful.”

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