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Growing Hope in Ypsilanti, MI: Urban agriculture and the Right to Food

by Mia Cohen, intern with the National Right to Food Community of Practice and sophomore at Hamilton College studying Environmental Studies and Biology

To continue the spotlight series 2023 National Right to Food Mini Grant Recipients, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Julius Buzzard from the nonprofit organization Growing Hope that is centered around creating food sovereignty in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Julius Buzzard is the Executive Director of Growing Hope, and his job responsibilities mostly entail overseeing and supporting the organization’s 24 member team. Individuals under the age of 18 make up 50 percent of the Growing Hope team. Growing Hope staff are dispersed across Ypsilanti: at Growing Hope’s urban farm, the local farmers market and public schools in the area, among other locations. 

Greenhouse with vegetables
Growing Hope's Urban Farm, 2023

Growing Hope and the families the organization has connected to mostly reside in Washtenaw County. Washtenaw County is also home to the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. With a median income of $14,350, higher than the state median income,Washtenaw County is considered to be the second wealthiest county in all of Michigan. However, statistical averages in Washtenaw County do not properly reflect income disparities across the neighborhoods in this section of Michigan. Julius explains that the “the graduation rate on our side of the community is very low.” The school environments are typically very unsafe “and mostly anyone with the means takes their kids out of schools in Ypsilanti, versus the other side of the county where their graduation rate is nearly 100 percent.” Not only does support in the public education system differ dramatically across Washtenaw County, but accessibility to a diverse array of healthy food does as well. If a Ypsilanti resident wanted to shop at a grocery store located in the city, they would have to shop at Kroger, the same grocery store company on the other side of Washtenaw county. Julius shares that even though Kroger owns both grocery stores, the location in Ypsilanti often sells food that is significantly expired. The Ypsilanti store has an unstable infrastructure with holes in the building and rodent infestations. On the other hand, the Kroger on the westside of Washtenaw county boasts a completely different environment. Julius admits that “the first time I went into it, I thought that I’d gone into Whole Foods.” The westside Kroger is kept at much more sanitary conditions and offers a completely different selection of fresh food to their customers.

While Julius exposes the commercialized discrimination that exists across Washtenaw County, he also underscores that Ypsilanti is not completely reliant on the nearby Kroger. Gardening and small-scale farming is widely practiced by land and homeowners in the city. Small scale livestock farms are a popular extension of people’s homes in Ypsilanti. Julius connects the ability for families to have agricultural freedom to Growing Hope-members’ political advocacy work through their involvement in local government over the past few decades. One important question is, how can households that do not have ownership over their homes and land, as well as individuals that do not consistently have reliable transportation to get to higher quality grocery stores, access quality food of their choice? Julius believes that the Ypsilanti community has room to grow “towards supporting urban agriculture as an answer to food access or to hunger, but also in creating other systems that help our community access the right to food in a regular, culturally appropriate and dignified way.” Even though barriers are currently preventing Ypsilanti residents from having available, accessible, adequate and appropriate food, Growing Hope has been bridging urban agriculture knowledge gaps, expanding nutritional food access and supporting beginning farmers for 21 years.

7 youths holding a giant cloth carrot
Members of Growing Hope’s After School Program, 2024

Growing Hope’s goals to engender food sovereignty in Ypsilanti are structured by the organization’s four impact areas. Youth and Schools is the program umbrella that covers educational gardens, youth cooking courses and teen employment opportunities that teach high school students about sustainable urban agriculture and food justice. Growing Hope also manages an in-person farmers market entitled the Depot Town Market, as well as the online produce market, the Ypsi Area Online Market. Both farmers markets enable Growing Hope to increase nutritional food access in the area, as well as help to sustain small food-related businesses. The organization’s urban farm mostly encompasses Growing Hope’s Farm and Gardens impact area, however, through other programming, Ypsilanti residents can receive free resources, such as compost and seeds, to start their own home gardens. Lastly, Growing Hope’s Food Entrepreneurship sector contains their incubator kitchen, where starting businesses can pay low costs to rent a high grade kitchen space, and their business workshops, where experts train food entrepreneurs on how to follow food retail and safety guidelines.

Stalls and people at farmer's market
The Depot Town Market, 2022

It is evident that Growing Hope provides an impressively long list of different ways for community members to get involved in the food production and selling processes in Ypsilanti, and each program is designed to meet the objectives of the same initiative. Julius expresses that if people have the “tools, resources, and knowledge and space to feed themselves”, then people will not only be able to drastically increase food access for their family unit, but also for the other people that they are connected to. Julius states that “70 to 80 percent (of the people who take part in their programs) are sharing their food with their friends, neighbors, and families… increasing that nexus outside of themselves.” 

Due to the fact that Growing Hope has been active in the Ypsilanti community for many years, clients and past students have shared how Growing Hope's programs have changed the trajectory of their lives. For instance, a student that was involved in Growing Hope’s Teen Leadership program 18 years ago recently revisited the Growing Hope office and engaged in discussion with Julius. Julius posed questions to the alum, such as, why did he decide to come back? Why was he interested in speaking with Julius? Why was his experience with Growing Hope meaningful? The alum explained that he wanted to come back to express his gratitude and his confidence that because of all that he learned about urban agriculture through Growing Hope, he is never going to go hungry. The alum now possesses vital knowledge about growing food, and is able to pass this knowledge down to his son. 

Growing Hope started their online farmers market during the COVID pandemic. Growing Hope organized home deliveries of fresh produce that were designed for “older participants and SNAP recipients.” One participant shared that she lost almost all contact with the world due to her severe case of COVID. Julius modestly shared that the participant expressed that “Growing Hope saved my life.” Julius then emphasized that, under the circumstances of the COVID pandemic, they prioritized sending large quantities of local produce directly to the participants’ homes rather than “things that are easy to send to a house”, like fast or canned food, “that don’t necessarily have the nutrient value that supports a healing body.” 

Growing Hope has produced immeasurable changes in the Ypsilanti community, and it is apparent that Growing Hope will continue to uplift Michigan residents for decades to come.

To read about ways to get involved in the organization, you can select the link here


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