Comprised of residents and leaders from Grand Rapids schools, nonprofits, and community organizations, the Grand Rapids Urban Agriculture Committee is partnering with the City of Grand Rapids “to grow and enhance the local food system, quality of life, and public health.” The committee loosely defines urban agriculture as “producing food to eat or sell in the city by growing plants and/or raising animals.”
However, this simple definition gives rise to several complex issues. For one, who will grow the food? Will it be city residents and small, local farmers, or high-powered agricultural industrialists looking for investment opportunities? Also, who will eat the food? Neighborhood residents who currently have little access to healthy whole foods, or the clientele of high-end restaurants? Another consideration, how will urban ag projects impact the neighborhoods where they operate? Will they support the existing residential community or hasten gentrification and higher housing costs?
For the past seven years, Lance Kraii has served as farm director for New City Neighbors on Grand Rapids’ northeast side. Because the farm is located on a parcel that is zoned residential, New City Farm has faced barriers to its operations that have little to do with preserving the residential character of the neighborhood. The main concern Kraii hopes the committee addresses is zoning.
“For us, zoning is a big issue that we run into. The City of Detroit has zoning especially developed for farms like us. Grand Rapids doesn’t,” he says. “For example, the residential building code prevents temporary carports. The way they are described is a structure with metal poles and soft plastic cover. This prevents us from having a hoop house [a type of greenhouse made with a steel frame and soft plastic cover]. We had to build it as a greenhouse and put a hard-plastic top on that doubled the cost.”
New City Farm began with the goal of creating job opportunities for youth. Its location in a food-insecure neighborhood where many residents face income challenges, also positions the farm as a beacon for food justice. People purchasing CSA shares in the farm, which provide them with fresh produce on a weekly basis, can do so using EBT dollars and the Double Up Food Bucks program. However, while succeeding at its mission, the farm has made some unplanned impacts on the neighborhood, as well.
“Urban ag can be a part of the process of gentrification. Our farm has played a part in that. That’s a complex reality that we’re aware of and part of,” Kraii says. “Is it some outside organization moving in and claiming land? It’s really important with urban ag to pay attention to each specific project.”
These are the kinds of concerns that City residents will have opportunity to raise at upcoming community meetings hosted by the City’s Urban Agriculture Committee:
- Oct. 22 at Blandford Nature Center, 1715 Hillburn Ave. NW, 3:30 to 5 p.m. and Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, 851 Madison Ave. SE, 6 to 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 24 at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 1935 Plymouth Ave. SE, 3:30 to 5 p.m.
- Oct. 25 at Yankee Clipper Public Library, 2025 Leonard St. NE, 1 to 2:30 p.m. and Cesar Chavez Elementary School, 1205 Grandville Ave. SW, in Spanish, 6 to 7:30; Fulton Street Farmers Market, 1145 Fulton St. E from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; and Southeast Area Farmers Market, Martin Luther King Park, 900 Fuller Ave. SE, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Community members can also share their thoughts online. The input will inform the Committee as it seeks to draft new zoning ordinances.
"School gardens, urban farms, [and] composting and educational initiatives have tremendous potential for shaping a city's fabric,” says Levi Gardner, Urban Roots founder and committee chair. “Through this community engagement process, we hope to better understand how these initiatives and many others like them fit into our growing city. While we are benchmarking against other cities in this process, we are welcoming Grand Rapids residents to voice their ideas, questions, and concerns about this work.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy New City Farm.