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Why The Greening of Detroit’s urban agriculture apprenticeship program is garnering interest and support

Aaliyah (center) with other apprentices

As far as Detroiter Aaliyah Muhammad was concerned, the idea of learning how to farm was so potent she considered putting her two-year-old son on her back while she learned.

“I definitely was very enthused that there was a farm that would take apprentices,” Muhammad says.

Aaliyah Muhammad

Aaliyah Muhammad

Intrigued by the idea of getting direct exposure to farming and growing food for her family, Muhammad signed up for a six-month apprenticeship program with The Greening of Detroit in 2014.

As part of its Urban Agriculture program, the nonprofit environmental organization works to increase Detroiter’s access to healthy, local food. Although the organization has been around for 27 years, the public consciousness has actually increased over time.

With phrases such as “food justice” buzzing around the city, it’s no wonder Muhammad would want to learn the means to transform her own community using the tools of farming.

She might have started as an apprentice, but she now works as the distribution coordinator for The Greening of Detroit, where she ensures produce is donated to the community, including soup kitchens, shelters, churches, and other organizations.

In Muhammad’s experience, local grocery stores simply don’t provide the best selection of produce, and those that do tend to be high-end in cost. The Greening of Detroit taught her produce doesn’t have to be expensive because it can be sourced locally.

This is really an education issue that should be widely shared, particularly with high school-aged children and other youth, she says, because they may not know the importance of food and where it comes from.

“It’s very important to know the different foods that are out there,” she says.

The apprenticeship program gives students access to the growers in the city as well as teaches them about the importance of soil and how to make it healthier, the important role of insects, and how to preserve food. Farmers share their “trade secrets” and pass them along to students.

Muhammad has seen the results in her own backyard – literally. The food she plants will be an integral part of her family’s dinner table.

“My first year, I was shocked at the growth in my backyard,” Muhammad says. “I’m just doing my thing, growing food.”

Tepfirah (Tee) Rushdan

Tepfirah (Tee) Rushdan says teaching people about nutrition can literally save lives

Tepfirah (“Tee”) Rushdan, director of Greening of Detroit, also started as an apprentice back in 2010. Since then, she has helped the organization in its mission to increase Detroiter’s access to healthy, local food.

The apprenticeship program is one of many ways Greening of Detroit is accomplishing that mission. It also provides movement-based classes, which include yoga and African dance in the garden as well as healthy soul food cooking and vegetable barbecue classes.

Too ambitious?

That depends on your point of view.

Teaching people about nutrition can literally save lives, Rushdan says. It also gives them a sense of self-determination. For example, going out in your backyard and doing these projects can be transformative and in some cases, revelatory.

“When you see a blighted neighborhood, and you see the empowerment that people feel when you come and bring food to support them in cleaning up their neighborhood, I know that it feels good,” Rushdan says. “It lends to a community’s self-determination. For all those reasons, we’re really happy to serve Detroit’s community.”

Recently, through a partnership with Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, residents, youth from neighborhood schools, and volunteers from Bank of America and American Forests, helped the Greening of Detroit install natural ecosystems within four vacant lots in the neighborhood. This site will become a nationally certified pollinator and natural habitat space.

It really goes beyond just food production, Muhammad says. People need to connect with nature.

“It’s important to be out there, to interact with nature on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “It can be a way to be less depressed, and less stressed – they (people) completely transcend. That interaction (between) the earth and the food, I think it’s important.”

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