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Planting the seeds of community: Urban Roots helps grow food justice in Grand Rapids






With a Master’s degree in community sustainability and ecology food and farming systems, experience in bio-intensive and organic growing, and a certification in permaculture design, Levi Gardner is no stranger to the concept that community gardening can be a potential game-changer.

He’s actually seen his fair share of different groups try their hand at small-scale efforts, but the trouble is that most of the time, he says, it doesn’t really end well. 

"We recognize that it's not a lack of interest, people or land, but a lack of tools and agricultural knowledge," says Gardner, who founded the nonprofit Urban Roots initiative with the intention of using community-driven agricultural growth to help address issues of food justice, unemployment, and community place-making. 

After the donation of a new community farm plot and education center by LINC Community Revitalization located at 1316 Madison SE, Urban Roots more recently launched a new mobile classroom initiative that aims to tackle issues of access to adequate tools and knowledge by bringing those educational elements to to people and places with a growing interest in educational gardens, including schools, churches and other organizations.

Supported by a recent awarded YMCA grant related to urban farming efforts, Urban Roots was able to purchase a retired ambulance vehicle to serve as the new mobile classroom, and the group is currently re-outfitting its interior in preparation for the upcoming growing season. 

The launch of the classroom comes nearly a year after Gardner first began piloting the concept, filling the bed of his own truck with as many seeds and fertilizers, hand tools and hoses as he could manage, bringing his collection of physical resources alongside his skill set to those who requested his assistance.

“To run a successful small-scale growing operation, whether it’s 100 square feet or 10 square feet, you need certain tools and implementations and skills to do it well, and we want to help people learn how to do it well,” he says. “We want to help people experience the rewarding upside of growing instead of just the discouraging downside.” 

In essence, the new mobile classroom offers struggling — or more often just curious — community gardeners a chance to familiarize themselves with the tools, required skill set, and best practices of a deceptively complicated ecosystem that can result in a costly blow to morale if executed improperly. 

“What we said was, what if we could come up with something that could seize those assets people bring — because land, interest and need are all assets — but then augment them with the tools and the skills and the kind of connections we have to be able to transform what they hope to see happen into a reality?” he says.

The mobile classroom is part of a series of exciting events happening at Urban Roots. Over the course of the last six months, the nonprofit has established its board of directors; began developing a community farm and education center in the Madison Square neighborhood at 1316 Madison SE, where they now have CSA shares available for purchase; formed community partnerships with various local organizations; overhauled its website and online presence; and received grants from both the YMCA and Slow Food to facilitate the purchase and operation of the ambulance re-outfitted for use as a mobile community classroom.

Inspired by a TEDtalk called “Leaders Eat Last,” which posits the idea that people don’t follow what you do, but rather why you do it, Gardner has committed the past year of his life to building the grassroots effort and has put a lot on the line to make Urban Roots a reality. 

The sense of certainty that pulls him forward, he says, has much less to do with confidence in every aspect of running a nonprofit organization, but instead has more to do with why he’s doing it and who he hopes to affect as a result.

“I’ve lost a lot to be able to make this happen, and I’m not going to say I’ve never doubted myself because I have definitely doubted myself — but yet I’ve always trusted what this is as a larger idea,” he says. “…We say in our tagline that we’re just a group of people trying to become fully human, trying to celebrate all of what it is to be alive and be human, and that’s a reality that permeates what we do and why we do it.”

Over the next year, Gardner says Urban Roots’ most important goal is “to know and be known” by its surrounding community and establish itself there as both an available resource and community asset, beginning on May 14 with a plant sale and resident open house for Madison Square area neighbors from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. 

From there, Gardner wants to extend that goal of connecting and establishing Urban Roots as an available resource and community asset beyond the nonprofit’s home neighborhood and into the larger Grand Rapids community. The group will continue operating with the goal of alleviating issues of food injustice and socioeconomic inequality by meeting people where they’re at with whatever tools they’ve got — even if sometimes all they need is a little bit of optimism. 

“I think at the end of the day, all of us want to be able to hang our hat on some optimism, and there are very few things more optimistic to me than growing something and planting a little seed and then having faith in this thing you have absolutely no control over.” 

To learn more about its May 14 open house or how you can get involved with the new mobile educational classroom, visit www.urbanrootsgr.org or find Urban Roots here on Facebook

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Levi Gardner/Urban Roots 
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