In pandemic times, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm turns to online community to feed residents, empower Black farmers

Photo by Cybelle Codish. Natosha Tallman of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.

During this holiday season, we take time to give thanks, donate to our favorite local causes, and begin to reflect on the year behind us. This year is no different, except that the chaos that 2020 threw our way has presented us with what seems like a never-ending series of crises that continue to derail daily life.

For Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, this year’s uncertainty has meant finding new ways to continue serving as a lifeline for the North End neighborhood.

For more than a decade, against a backdrop of social-economic need, the farm’s team has been on a mission to contribute to a more racially-just, local food system. The farm grows and sells healthy, affordable food, offers jobs, training opportunities, and mentorships to local residents (most of whom live within walking distance of the site), and its grounds regularly serve as a hub for community gatherings where people can break bread and celebrate culture.

Photo by Cybelle Codish. A worker tending to the harvest at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.
Photo by Cybelle Codish. Left, Jerry Hebron, founder of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and another colleague making Afro-Jam.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year and thousands of Detroiters found themselves impacted in nearly all aspects of daily life, the farm’s mission was only reinforced, albeit with a whole new set of challenges. With a surge in households in need of access to affordable healthy food options and having to contend with social distancing realities, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm pivoted to offer an online option so residents could continue to enjoy the fruits of the farm’s labor.

In light of the pandemic we have… (we) established an online marketplace platform for community residents to continue to receive locally grown fresh produce hands-free via curbside pick-up,” says Natosha Tallman, Program Director for Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. “We also honor EBT and Double Up Food Bucks usage.”

Typically, the season runs between April and the end of November.  Due to the pandemic, the season got started around June and is running through the first week of December.

Through the new online marketplace, residents can order a variety of pantry staples like kale, salad greens, eggs, honey, edible flowers, peppers, onions, tomatoes — whatever is available week-to-week to reflect the latest harvest. Customers must first register here.

Ordering windows would take place between Tuesday and Sunday and purchases would be picked up in-person on Wednesdays and Sundays between noon and 3 p.m. at D-Town Farms at 14027 W. Outer Drive and at Oakland Avenue at 9227 Goodwin St. on Wednesdays and Fridays between noon and 3 p.m. In addition to being able to pay with a credit card online, residents also have had the option to pay in-person using their EBT benefits card or using Cash App or Venmo.

This shift removes a barrier for families who rely on SNAP benefits to buy groceries from being able to place orders online. More established online food delivery services like Shipt and Doordash do not accept EBT cards and require a credit or debit card. Meanwhile, retail giants like Amazon do accept them, however, only dry pantry items are eligible, not fresh, locally-produced food.

The online marketplace, which comes to an end for the season this week, is just one example of the ways that Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has used its virtual community to leverage its mission.

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm regularly uses its social media presence to promote free food box giveaways for folks in immediate need and collaborates regularly with prominent Detroit Chef Phil Jones who offers occasional virtual healthy cooking classes. Earlier this year, farmer organizers worked in partnership with the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Keep Growing Detroit to establish the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which raised $55,000 through an online campaign to help Black Detroiters to purchase farmland.

Photo by Cybelle Codish. Jerry and Billy Hebron, founders of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.
Photo by Cybelle Codish. Beets by Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.

Operating under its parent organization, the Northend Christian Community Development Corporation, the farm was founded by Jerry and Billy Hebron to address the growing need for healthy foods in the community. First breaking ground in 2008, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm comprises more than six acres of land and has looked for innovative ways from the beginning to respond directly to the needs of its residents. Its ‘Harvest on Demand’ program, for example, allows customers to make special requests for the farm to grow on its land.

The farm also typically holds a weekly Saturday market from June through September, harvest more than 30 varieties of vegetables and fruit using organic practices as well as selling herbal teas, eggs, spices, and locally-made packaged foods. In addition, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm produce can be found at Eastern Market’s Grown in Detroit stand, regularly appears at Fiat Chrysler Plants throughout the region, and serves as a hub for local growers to pick up essential gardening supplies. What’s more, it’s the only farm within Detroit city limits that is certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giving the growers the ability to sell produce to schools, wholesalers, grocers, and others that are otherwise required to do business only with food growers that meet federal food safety standards.

As 2021 approaches, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is looking to continue serving as an essential resource for the residents of the North End.

“Essentially Oakland Avenue Urban Farm the community. Virtually all who work on-site live within walking distance,” Tallman says. “Many were born and raised in the North End. Our partners have long-standing reputations for positive impact in the community. The farm’s spaces, indoor and out, are always open to our neighbors.”

While the online market season is coming to a close for the year, we’ll be looking forward to what comes next at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm as we bring in 2021.

This article was supported by a Building Healthy Places grant from Taste the Local Difference (TLD) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).

Megan Kirk

Author: Megan Kirk

Megan Kirk is a freelance writer from Detroit with a passion for local news. A recent graduate of Michigan State University, she has been featured in Opportunity Detroit as well as The Michigan Chronicle.

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