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Metro Detroit Goes Slow And Tastes The Difference


As the auto industry crumbles around us, Michigan is slowing down…for the better.

What many don't realize is that the state is at the forefront of an international phenomenon: the Slow Food Movement, which owes its existence in no small part to Michigan's status as one of the largest agricultural regions in the country. Agriculture is our second-largest industry, with an annual economic impact of $63.7 billion (and growing). The Michigan Department of Agriculture estimates that if every household spent just $10 per week on locally grown foods, we would keep more than $37 million each week circulating within Michigan's economy.

"Michigan [is] an agricultural mecca," states Michael Peters of Detroit-based Indi Edibles. "We have the water, the climate and the location to be the farming community of this country."  

Peters started his unique video blog business "to promote, support and educate people about the dynamic benefits of locally grown food and the powerful connection it has to our happiness, financial well-being, and fulfillment as human beings." The firm achieves this by filming and self-publishing videos which discuss local food, growing techniques, and a particular farm-contractor business model designed by Peters. 

It is these kinds of ideas that are at the heart of the Slow Food movement. The slow food ideology espouses the ideals of fresh, local, seasonal produce; sustainable farming; artisanal production; and also preaches the ethics of "eco-gastronomy"—the notion that eating well can, and should, go hand in hand with protecting the environment. By further extension, eating well also goes hand-in-hand with health and wellness.

As Gregg Newsom of Detroit Evolution Lab notes, "Interest in slow food will continue to increase as everyday people start to feel the strain of the standard American diet… People want to feel better and have meaningful and heartfelt interactions with others." His lab is a triple-threat, offering vegan and raw food cooking classes and catering, yoga and private bodywork sessions, as well as lectures and workshops on sustainability. All of this is done with the utmost concern for "social and environmental justice," concepts both Newsom and his partner Angela Kasmala are deeply committed to. 

"Our concept of wealth [has shifted] to health, happiness and community rather than the accumulation of material possessions and massive debt," Newsom says. Look upon it as a trend of falling back on traditional values, in keeping with those of Slow Food, that sees increasingly more support from Metro Detroiters as the recession here deepens.

The movement itself started in Bra, Italy in 1989, as culinary writer Carlo Petrini's response to what he saw as the cataclysmic opening of McDonald's in Rome. It stands in direct gastro-ethical contrast to the fast-and-cheap mentality of those all-American arches. Slow food means preserving food traditions and biodiversity by focusing on the local, the seasonal, the small-production. It refers to our methods of growing, preparing, and sharing our food, as well as promoting wellness, togetherness, and eco-consciousness —a smaller component of the Green Fever sweeping the world. And in Michigan, it is everywhere. Just look at the recent explosion of popularity and pervasiveness of farmers' markets and gourmet grocers.

Slow food has not been without its dissent, though. There are many naysayers who have accused the movement of being "elitist." There is no doubt that the person paying $45.00 for a 500mL bottle of French olive oil is experiencing a far different aspect of slow food than the urban communities planting gardens so families in need will have access to fresh, healthy food. 

"This is exactly why I personally got involved in the revitalization of the Slow Food Detroit chapter earlier this year," says Membership Chair Valerie Clayton.  "I had heard this idea before - that Slow Food is elitist and that local organically produced food is expensive - and it's still a shocking and confusing idea to me." She grew up on a farm, raising and slaughtering chickens and canning fruits and vegetables. 

"These are not expensive ways to obtain your food!" Clayton exclaims. "Slow Food seeks to expose alternatives to mass production AND the elite foodstuffs available at the gourmet food markets. If you cannot spend the time to grow your own livestock and vegetables, you can buy produce from farmers' markets, almost always at more economical prices than your local chain supermarket. ...We want to show you how you can make a chicken & vegetable soup from fresh ingredients at a lower cost per serving than you can purchase it ready-made from a can… Ultimately, the $45 olive oil is delicious, but really, a very small part of what Slow Food is about."

And Metro Detroit has been doing this whole "Slow Food" thing long before it was a "thing." Take, for example, the current urban agriculture trend. While cities like Chicago and New Orleans like to proudly tout their urban agriculture efforts, the term "urban farming" is not only considered synonymous with Detroit, but the nonprofit organization of the same name was even started here.

Urban Farming, an international non-profit headquartered in Detroit, was founded in 2005 by Detroiter Taja Sevelle with just $5,000 and a tremendous amount of community support. She saw the roughly 60,000 vacant lots in the city as an opportunity to transform this trash-strewn, abandoned land into community gardens to provide families with fresh, nutritious produce and to help build a stronger sense of community. 

Urban Farming has since made international headlines and now has outposts across the United States and in the Caribbean Islands. The effects have been profound. Not only are poverty-stricken families provided with fresh food, but these community gardens have also been shown to have rehabilitative effects and reduce crime in their surrounding areas. They have done what food is meant to do: provide nourishment and bring people closer together.

Detroit's vacant properties provide both resource and opportunity for urban farms and community gardens, but the trend is far-reaching. In Ann Arbor, Project Grow targets underutilized land for community gardens and provides the knowledge and skills required to maintain these gardens with special programs for children, the elderly, and disabled persons so that all people, regardless of their situations, can participate and grow their own fresh, organic food. 

Nearby Ypsilanti has a similar program called Growing Hope. Amanda Edmonds began the organization in 2003 as an outgrowth of her gardening and nutrition work with Ypsilanti residents. Its mission is to improve communities through gardening and healthy food access, empowering residents to grow and make fresh, healthy food. 

Karen Spangler of Growing Hope notes, "Our hope is that through urban gardens, farmers' markets, and other such endeavors, a community will become even more self-reliant and resilient, in terms of food and in terms of the local economy." She feels that Michigan is in a particularly well-suited position to change the way we view our food: "Michigan, more than many other states in the nation, is encountering only the latest in a series of crises. Crisis forces people to admit that 'business as usual' is not working, and that innovative and sustainable approaches are called for."

Urban farms, urban gardens—all of them have the same purpose. By providing families who might not otherwise have access to fresh, nutritious produce, they are promoting wellness—both physical and mental, as the cost to families is free and helps lessen the burden of financial need. By promoting the community sharing aspect of a community garden, in which all people participate in whatever way they can and take only what they need, they help strengthen the sense of community. 

Urban agriculture is, quite literally, the root of the Slow Food movement, and has made the fundamental principles of slow food accessible to those who can't afford those pricey olive oils. The mind is fulfilled bodily, and yes—spiritually. Who needs chicken soup when you've got urban gardens for the soul?


Nicole Rupersburg likes Detroit and eating. She lives on Facebook and likes new friends.  She also writes this blog: diningindetroit.blogspot.com. This is her first article for Metromode. Send feedback here.

Photos:

Gregg Newsom and Angela Kasmala teaching a Vegan cooking class at Detroit Evolution.

Chilli

Project Grow - Ann Arbor

Growing Hope Garden - Ypsilanti

Georgia Street Community Garden - Detroit

Project Grow signage - Ann Arbor Airport

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D

Contact Marvin here


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