On a cold winter day last week, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Garry Lee, Michigan State Conservationist from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), visited Detroit’s Eastern Market. They were joined by Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Ashley Atkinson, Co-Director of Keep Growing Detroit and Morse Brown, Board President of the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council. Despite the freezing temperatures that will make growing food a challenge for another few months, Garry and the Senator were there to discuss new support for the Detroit-Wayne County Seasonal High Tunnel Education Initiative (SHEI) which will bring new high tunnels – greenhouse-like structures also known as hoop houses – to Detroit’s urban farmers.
Funded by USDA and managed by local organizations, SHEI will train Detroit’s urban growers to install, operate and manage seasonal high tunnels that will conserve natural resources, improve productivity and help them be profitable year round. Easy to build and use, high tunnels were first supported by USDA as a conservation practice in 2010. Since that time, USDA has funded nearly 10,000 across the country. Along with other benefits, high tunnels are providing farmers from Alaska to Baltimore with tools to extend their growing season and provide their communities with fresh, locally-grown produce later into the year.
The announcement at Eastern Market came on the heels of another recent announcement to strengthen Detroit’s regional food system. On February 11, School Food FOCUS, a nonprofit organization specializing in helping school systems procure healthy and sustainable food, announced a partnership with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to help Detroit Public Schools improve its capacity and ability to procure fresh, local produce. Through this partnership, DPS will get technical support and guidance to analyze its existing produce supply chain and identify how it – and school districts like it around the country – can develop systems to procure more local food.
Eastern Market is a key partner in both of these projects. As one of the country’s oldest operating public markets and a pioneering food hub, Eastern Market offers critical services that connect Michigan’s rural producers with market opportunities in the state’s biggest city. USDA has partnered with Eastern Market on several projects including efforts to bring fresh food directly to some of the city’s more distressed neighborhoods, to develop programs that increase access to Michigan-grown produce at farmers markets, and to train producers on food safety and other requirements necessary to sell to wholesale markets.
These efforts are part of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, which coordinates the Department’s work to strengthen regional food systems around the country. It is also one example of the Obama Administration’s long-term commitment to working with local leaders and support the economic revitalization of Detroit. As part of that commitment, the President appointed Don Graves, the Executive Director of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, to lead the Administration’s efforts in Detroit in order to provide real, tangible economic development and opportunity with existing resources and public-private partnerships to support and accelerate Detroit’s revitalization. For Detroit, these investments are working to increase access to healthy food utilizing one of the state’s best assets: its rich agricultural tradition.