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Courtney Burk

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Cadillac Urban Gardens Grows Free Produce to Build Food Security in Southwest Detroit

Despite the pandemic, Cadillac Urban Gardens managed to grow and donate more produce to the community in 2020 than the previous year

In the heart of Southwest Detroit, a once abandoned parking lot has transformed into a vibrant garden filled with raised vegetable beds through the dedication and hard work of the local community and volunteers. With its brightly painted artwork from discarded tires lining the fence, Cadillac Urban Gardens offers local residents access to the garden and its fresh produce with the goal of providing control of the mechanism and policies of food production and distribution within the community.

On a typical day during the growing season, Cadillac Urban Gardens would be filled with young volunteers watering and tending a lush selection of vegetables, children laughing and digging small fingers in the dirt, and community members gathered beneath the pergola. In the pandemic, the local community still gathers at the garden, but in much smaller groups through scheduled walk-ups and pick-ups, chatting beneath masks and waving to neighbors from a distance. Regardless of the scenario, residents leave the garden with an overflowing bag of freshly harvested produce and herbs.

Cadillac Urban Gardens On Merritt (CUGM) grew 3,500 pounds of free produce in 2020 and distributed it to food insecure community members through garden pick-ups, local donations, and weekly drop-offs to Detroit Community Fridge and Brilliant Detroit. With COVID-19 restrictions and the number of volunteers significantly reduced, the garden’s growing season was delayed last year. Transplants meant to go in the ground by mid-March were not put in beds on the farm until the end of April into early May. But through innovation and its volunteers, CUGM found creative ways to grow the garden’s highest yield of produce for people living within the Southwest Detroit community.

In previous years, residents had access to growing and harvesting produce in the garden near their homes as well as through area youth programs, educational classes, and fundraising and volunteer events. The garden collected thousands of hours of youth service in collaboration with local high schools since its founding in 2012. Reenvisioning sessions also allowed the community to voice their own ideas for the garden and its future.

Throughout the health crisis, CUGM moved much of this community engagement online using Google forms for people to sign up for free produce or sharing recipes and plant information on social media.

Courtney Burk
Courtney Burk

Volunteers dedicated more time at the garden, too, distributing bags of produce to the local free fridge and food drives and a pop-up with vegan taco and coffee truck Rocky’s Road Brew. “We work really hard to provide for our community, while creating a safe space for residents and access to free equitable produce,” says environment and community sustainability specialist Dolores Perales.

Perales began volunteering at Cadillac Urban Gardens when she was 15 and is now pursuing a Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability and Master in Urban and Regional Planning with a focus in land use and environmental planning.

“We grow everything for the community and with the community in mind,” she says.

The garden’s volunteer organizers collect feedback from community members on what to grow, how much to grow, and what they like and dislike in relation to the food grown in the garden. This information is then used to plan during the colder months in order to grow as much produce as possible for residents and others in need.

“A lot of times, residents aren’t able to travel out of the suburbs and get produce at a fair and reasonable cost. Within the city limits, produce prices are outrageous,” Perales says. For larger families that are extremely conscious of their budgets, the option of purchasing two bell peppers for three dollars versus a pack of noodles for the same [price] often presents the failed system idea of quantity over quality. And in turn, quantity over health.”

Courtney Burk
Courtney Burk

Cadillac Urban Gardens is a partnership with General Motors, the Ideal Group, and Southwest Detroit Environmental Division (SDEV). The latter is made up of residents, community organizations, local and government agencies, schools, and businesses all working to improve the environment and economy of Southwest Detroit. Southwest Detroit development company, the Ideal Group, assisted the garden organization in purchasing the land through this partnership, allowing volunteers to run and use the space as they see fit.

“The city has a lot of issues with land ownership, barriers in purchasing property, and guerilla gardening. We’re very grateful for the opportunity to grow on land without the threat of it being taken away,” Perales explains.

The model behind Cadillac Urban Gardens is to grow vegetables using sustainable gardening practices to create a zero waste environment and more efficient water strategies within the community. Recycling and compost bins are provided by SDEV’s Healthy Business Program and Bright Recycling Services.

Cadillac Urban Gardens resides on land once home to Clark Street Cadillac plant’s executive parking lot in the 1970s and early 1980s. When it was abandoned, the parking lot became overrun with weeds and scrap metal. Volunteers transformed discarded containers into 332 garden beds and removed 8.75 tons of scrap metal from the property, keeping it out of the waste stream. Over 2,500 plants were put into the ground in 2016 alone. CUGM has grown to include 31 replica garden plots.

“Our planter beds are literally shipping containers that were used to ship automotive parts to GM and after their delivery were going down the waste stream,” Perales says. “What began as an original 30 to 40 shipping containers being repurposed, turned into 300 — and that number keeps growing every year.”

According to Perales, GM delivers these metal containers to the garden whenever the company receives a shipment. Containers not used at CUGM are sent to other gardens and homes, along with repurposing instructions.

Courtney Burk
Courtney Burk

A large variety of crops grow within these repurposed shipping containers, which are fashioned into raised planter beds and split into quadrants. Beds referred to as “greenways” hold lettuce blends, kale, cabbages, herbs, and peas. “Tomato lanes” contain Big Boys, Early Girls, beefsteaks, and cherry tomatoes. Companion crops, like basil and parsley, grow alongside the vegetables in the beds to help with pollination.

“Traditionally, we like to start mid-April, early May, and begin seeding in April. Transplants then go in the ground at the beginning of May,” says Perales. Delays and a limited number of volunteers allowed in the garden due to the pandemic saw the season begin at the end of May last year. With the gates closed until the end of June, Perales says they worked “overtime” to make sure people were fed. A wide array of plants were placed in gardens next to one another to maximize space efficiently within each bed. When one crop finished growing, another immediately replaced it.

Even with all of the restrictions and late-season planting, Cadillac Urban Gardens and its small team of volunteers managed to grow and donate more produce to the community in 2020 than the previous year’s 3,000 pounds. Volunteers are now hard at work collecting seeds, growing plants indoors, planning, and fundraising for the upcoming season.

“With less community members in the garden this year [2020], it was important for us to be more strategic and efficient when it came to planting and harvesting. While it was unprecedented, we learned so much, and it’s education we’ll be optimizing in the future,” says Perales. “It also taught us the resilience of food, people, and our passion for the community through food.”

4601 Merritt Street, Detroit.

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