Cadillac Urban Gardens Grows and Provides Free Vegetables and Herbs to Help Fight Food Insecurity in Southwest Detroit
In the heart of southwest Detroit, through the dedication and hard work of the local community and volunteers, a once-abandoned parking lot has been turned into a vibrant garden with raised vegetable patches. Cadillac Urban Gardens offers residents access to the garden and its fresh produce with its brightly painted artwork made from discarded tires lining the fence, with the aim of maintaining control over the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution within the community.
On a typical day during the growing season, the Cadillac Urban Gardens were full of young volunteers watering and tending a plentiful selection of vegetables, children laughing and digging little fingers in the dirt, and community members gathering under the pergola. During the pandemic, the local community still gathers in the garden, but in much smaller groups through planned walks and pickups, chatting under masks and waving to neighbors from afar. Regardless of the scenario, residents leave the garden with a bag overflowing with freshly harvested products and herbs.
Cadillac Urban Gardens On Merritt (CUGM) grew 3,500 pounds of free produce in 2020 and distributed them to members of the insecure community through garden collections, local donations, and weekly donations to Detroit Community Fridge and Brilliant Detroit. As COVID-19 restrictions and the number of volunteers decreased significantly, the garden’s growing season delayed last year. Transplants, which were supposed to go into the ground by mid-March, were not put into beds in the yard until late April to early May. Through innovation and its volunteers, CUGM found creative ways to increase the highest yield of garden products for people in the Southwest Detroit community.
In recent years, residents have had access to growing and harvesting produce in the garden near their homes, as well as through local youth programs, educational courses, and fundraising and volunteer events. The garden has accumulated thousands of hours of youth service since its inception in 2012 in collaboration with local high schools. The redesign of the sessions also allowed the community to express its own ideas for the garden and its future.
During the health crisis, CUGM moved much of that community engagement online using Google Forms to allow people to sign up for free products or share recipes and plant information on social media.
Volunteers also got more gardening, handing out bags of produce to the local free fridge and grocery rides, as well as a pop-up of Rocky’s Road Brew vegan taco and coffee cart. “We work very hard to feed our community while creating a safe space for residents and access to free, fair products,” says Dolores Perales, environmental and community sustainability specialist.
Perales began volunteering at Cadillac Urban Gardens at the age of 15 and is now pursuing a Master of Science degree in Environment and Sustainability and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning with a focus on 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 foods grown in the garden. This information is then used to plan for the colder months to grow as much produce as possible for local residents and other needy people.
“Often times, residents are unable to leave the suburbs and get products at a fair and reasonable cost. Product prices are outrageous within the city limits, ”says Perales. For larger families who are very budget conscious, there is an option to buy two peppers for three dollars versus a packet of pasta for the same thing [price] often presents the failed system idea of quantity over quality. And in return, quantity over health. “
Cadillac Urban Gardens is a partnership with General Motors, the Ideal Group, and the Southwest Detroit Environmental Division (SDEV). The latter is made up of local residents, community organizations, local and state agencies, schools and businesses, all of which are working to improve the environment and the economy in southwest Detroit. Southwest Detroit’s development group, Ideal Group, supported the gardening organization in purchasing the property as part of this partnership, so that volunteers could operate and use the space at their own discretion.
“The city has many problems with land ownership, barriers to buying real estate, and guerrilla gardening. We are very grateful for the opportunity to grow on land without the risk of it being taken away, ”explains Perales.
The model behind Cadillac Urban Gardens is to grow vegetables using sustainable gardening practices to create a litter free 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 is located on land where the executive parking lot of the Cadillac plant on Clark Street was in the 1970s and early 1980s. When it was abandoned, the parking lot became overflowing with weeds and scrap metal. Volunteers turned discarded containers into 332 garden beds and removed 8.75 tons of scrap metal from the property to keep it out of the waste stream. In 2016 alone, over 2,500 plants were planted in the ground. CUGM has grown to 31 replicated garden plots.
“Our plant beds are literally shipping containers that were used to ship auto parts to GM and that went down the waste stream after they were delivered,” says Perales. “What started as the original 30 to 40 shipping containers has been converted to 300 – and that number continues to grow every year.”
According to Perales, GM will deliver these metal containers to the garden when the company receives a shipment. Containers that are not used at CUGM will be sent to other gardens and homes along with instructions for reuse.
A multitude of plants grow in these converted shipping containers, which are formed into raised beds and divided into quadrants. In the beds known as “greenways” there are mixed lettuce, kale, cabbage, herbs and peas. “Tomato Lanes” contain big boys, early girls, beef steaks and cherry tomatoes. Minor crops like basil and parsley grow next to the vegetables in the beds to aid pollination.
“Traditionally, we like to start in mid-April, early May and start sowing in April. The transplants will then go into the ground at the beginning of May, ”says Perales. Due to delays and a limited number of volunteers allowed in the garden due to the pandemic, the season started in late May last year. With the gates closed until the end of June, Perales said they worked “overtime” to make sure people were fed. A variety of plants have been placed side by side in gardens to efficiently maximize the space in each bed. When one harvest was ready, another immediately replaced it.
Despite all the restrictions and late-season planting, Cadillac Urban Gardens and its small team of volunteers managed to grow and donate more products to the community in 2020 than the £ 3,000 previous year. Volunteers are now working hard to collect seeds, grow plants indoors, plan and raise funds for the upcoming season.
“With fewer community members in the garden this year It was important for us to plant and harvest more strategically and efficiently. It was unprecedented, but we learned so much and we will optimize the training in the future, ”says Perales. “It also taught us the resilience of food, people and our passion for community through food.”
4601 Merritt Street, Detroit.
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