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CDC spins the entire food web in Detroit’s North End

The Michigan Citizen

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

There used to be a liquor store at the corner of Second and Philadelphia. Now the building is home to over 3,500 tilapia fish and a floating field of basil plants.

The CDC Farm and Fishery, which opened this year, is just one part of Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation’s wholistic approach to the local food system in the North End neighborhood. The organization has full scale production farms, the Peaches and Greens produce market, and a restaurant in addition to its other service operations.

Lisa Johanon, CDC’s founder and executive director, says organization’s work in the food system began when they purchased the legendary Mr. Fofo’s Deli in 2006 to help provide employment for people in the neighborhood and financially support their other community programs.

The endeavor was successful and in 2008, the CDC opened Peaches and Greens a block away. “I just wanted a produce market in the neighborhood,” Johanon says. “I lived one block away… I wanted to buy locally… but there was nothing (in the neighborhood stores at the time) I would put on my table in terms of produce.”

Both operations prospered, but the message about health seemed inconsistent, Johanon recalls. “We’re telling people one block away to be green and eat healthy, and here we’re telling them to clog your arteries and eat ice cream.” Mr. Fofo’s was closed in 2010, remodeled and opened as Café Sonshine, a healthy soul food restaurant.

Meanwhile, the CDC continued to try and build up the neighborhood, economically and aesthetically. “You’ve got 300 vacant lots here,” Johanon told The Michigan Citizen. “We’ve got to find new and creative things to do with them.”

A series of small community gardens have now matured into full-scale production farms that supply some of the produce sold at Peaches and Greens and used in the dishes at Café Sonshine.

The Hope garden is even equipped with a water capture system that enables it to be self-sufficient for water during a sufficiently rainy year like the one we just experienced. A hoop house — a kind of flexible mobile greenhouse — allows the farmers to grow items outside during winter as well.

The CDC adventure into aquaponics — the system of raising aquatic animals and cultivating plants in water in a symbiotic way — came from left field. When the owner of the liquor store at Second and Philadelphia passed away, his family donated the building to the CDC in honor of all they had done for the neighborhood. Johanon says her initial idea was to open a laundromat, something she believes the neighborhood badly needs, but the building had a basement.

The centrifugal forces generated by dozens of spin-cycling washers and driers is too powerful for a space with a basement — the floor would collapse. So Johanon decided to have a go at aquaponics.

CDC Farm and Fishery manager Megan Husch calls the system bio-mimicry, “taking what happens naturally outdoors and bringing it in to a controlled environment.”

In a household-style fish tank in the basement live four female tilapia and one male “breeder.”

“We’re one of the few places in that state that do our own breeding,” Husch says. The male deposits his semen on the bottom of the tank and a female will lay her eggs there. Then the female scoops the fertilized eggs into her mouth. She keeps her mouth closed for the next 7-8 days, forgoing eating while her young develop. Seven days later, CDC farmers move the “pregnant” female into a separate tank, and soon she spits out a mouthful of fruitfly-sized baby tilapia. More than 90 percent of the babies are males because the breeder male has two y-chromosomes. This ensures that the mature fish attain the desired market weight of 1.5 pounds.

Over the ensuing months the fish grow to full size. As the fish make waste, fresh water is pumped in, and the nutrient-rich water is filtered out into a separate tank where redworm breaks down the solid waste and produce worm cast, which contains the nutrients plants need to thrive. The worm cast water is then pumped upstairs into the massive beds where CDC farmers are growing basil and wheatgrass, which is sold to local restaurants. Because all the water stays in the system, Husch says the Farm and Fishery’s “water bill is probably less than most homes. Because the only water that’s lost is through evaporation and transpiration to the plans.”

Whole Second Avenue-raised tilapia are available for sale at Peaches and Greens.

Anthony Hatinger, CDC garden production manager, says the symbiotic relationship is larger than the systems iside the fishery building. “What’s important is that you have to have all the pieces of the food system very close to one another in order to have a real production chain. Here (in the neighborhood) we have production, we have slight manufacturing, we have distribution and we have retail and wholesale through our external markets … so what’s being grown is sold and eaten in the neighborhood. That’s how you get those revenue loops back to where the food is.”

The CDC’s revenue loop is even expanding the footprint of entrepreneurship in the community as, the CDC is selling Café Sonshine to to its longtime managers and operators Darryl and Janine Terrell.

Peaches and Greens manager Liz Etim worked as a buyer for much of her career and spent over a decade in the automotive industry. After being laid off like so many others, she went back to school and earned a certificate in landscape and nursery management from Michigan State University. Despite the challenges of working with a very perishable product rather than things like nuts and bolts, which are completely “shelf-stable,” Etim is much happier working at Peaches and Greens than she was in automotive. “It’s not just about making profit.. yeah we need to survive, but at the same time you’re affecting your community… It makes a difference because you’re meeting people and have a chance to talk.” She tells the story of a customer who has a preference for the brown bananas, the kind most customers don’t want to buy. Whenever she has a batch of bananas get super ripe, she calls him and he comes and gets the bananas — just the way he likes them and at a discount. This cuts down on waste and adds to the community’s connection, Etim says.

Ester Keeler, who has lived in the neighborhood for many years, loves having fresh affordable produce close to her she says.

In addition to operating the Peaches and Greens truck, which vends like ice cream trucks do, fresh produce throughout the season over a five-mile radius, the shop is used for block club meetings and workshops.

Wesley Brooks, a father of four (Wesley II, Whitney, Tarryn and Sierra), began frequenting the shop last year, since it was close to his youngest daughter Sierra’s school. The family recently attended a canning workshop, learning how to can their own vegetables and make jams. The family not only enjoyed learning together, they loved the food they made. “The jams went very quickly,” Brooks says with a laugh. Brooks also says access to fresh produce at Peaches and Greens has encouraged him to try new kinds of vegetables, including some varieties of squash he had never seen before. Sierra loves the apples and a brand of cheese sticks she has only found there. “They’re really good and they’re also really healthy. Other stores have a lot of salt in them,” she says.

Hatinger believes the hyper-local focus of CDC’s work in one small neighborhood can have a global impact. “We have these models that once they’re fleshed out and proven can be extrapolated into other communities around the country, because a lot of people are going through the same struggle of post-industrial (crisis).

Visit Peaches and Greens at 8838 Third Street, Detroit, and learn about all of the CDC’s work at www.centraldetroitchristian.org.