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Urban agriculture interest increasing in Grand Rapids

produce from the Aquinas community garden

Story by Anna Schlutt, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Anna Schlutt 

Grand Rapids has recently begun to develop urban agriculture initiatives throughout the city, trying to increase access to locally grown, sustainable produce.

Urban agriculture has been increasing across the globe, which has led to a growing interest in Grand Rapids.

“There’s a lot of activity and interest citywide,” said Jessica Eimer-Bowen, director of Sustainability at Aquinas.

Urban agriculture can include more than just farming produce. It includes caring for animals and insects in an urban setting.

The official definition, according to the Grand Rapids Urban Agriculture Committee, is “growing or producing food by cultivating plants and raising animals in the city.” This can include extremes like caring for bees and livestock, as well as simple things like farming produce at home, buying from local farmers markets and composting.

Urban agriculture can be done in a variety of places. Some people have the space to farm in their own backyards, but community gardens also can be found across Grand Rapids. Aquinas has its own community garden, which is open to students and maintained by Christina Radisauskas, a librarian at the Grace Hauenstein Library.

“It’s a space you can choose to engage with on an informal basis,” Bowen said.

Bowen has made it easy for students to access the garden and its products. During farming season, a stall sits outside of the area with a basket of fresh produce. Students are also free to pick fruits and vegetables directly from a variety of plants.

Not every school has the space or resources for a community garden. Cornerstone University has instead developed its own form of food sharing through a system known as a “seed library.” Kent District Library has a similar system.

The KDL seed library is open to everyone, not just those with library cards. The mission of the system is to expand access to seeds and to allow everyone to farm.

KDL states that most commercial seeds are bred for shelf life rather than quality. The seed library intends to breed better seeds and to share them throughout the area, allowing for quality urban agriculture. People are allowed to take seeds from the library and plant them. After the seeds mature into plants, gardeners can harvest more seeds from the produce they’ve grown and return them to the library.

Among the leaders of the Grand Rapids urban farming movement is a local nonprofit, Urban Roots. The organization was founded in 2013, intended to empower local communities and to educate people about urban farming.

Urban Roots provides a wide variety of services, including education, a community market and compost pickup. They are based near Madison Square in Southeast Grand Rapids, and offer most services at a discount rate to those who live in the neighborhood.

The team intentionally established its location in an impoverished area; locals have a hard time finding healthy and affordable food within a reasonable distance, as well as education on farming and cooking healthy foods. Urban Roots strives to fill that void.

The organization works hard to get to know the local community. Jeff Pingle, the Urban Roots farm manager, does his best to fulfill neighborhood needs and desires.

“We try to take a lot of requests from people in the neighborhood,” Pingle said.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for a nonprofit to succeed without being supported by a major organization. Running a garden, a community market and a variety of workshops and services takes a serious financial toll on the nonprofit.

“It takes a lot of resources to make something like this run,” said Maaike Baker, the community engagement manager at Urban Roots.

Funding is a major difficulty for Urban Roots to overcome, so they are currently maintaining practical, manageable goals. They focus on the community around them and the education they can provide to Grand Rapids.

“We want to teach people how to not only grow, but also cook and enjoy, healthy food that is good for their bodies and minds,” Baker said.

About the Writer: 
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Anna Schlutt is a sophomore majoring in Photojournalism with minors in Spanish,
Political Science and Communication. She thoroughly enjoys working as a lifeguard for the City of Grand Rapids and trying to learn all the instruments you can find in a rock band.

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