Story by Nina Ignaczak of Planet Detroit
In Marcia Spivey’s backyard in northwest Detroit, a weeping cherry tree sits right next to a raised garden bed. Spivey’s mother’s ashes are buried beneath the tree, and she likes to think of her mom, who was an avid gardener, overseeing Spivey’s first attempts at growing her own food.
Spivey, an attorney in solo practice and a law school professor, had never gardened before. But early in the pandemic last year, the sight of empty grocery store shelves made her feel anxious about food security.
“I was thinking like, shame on me for not knowing how to eat from the land,” she said. “In my family, all of our ancestors are from the far south. And so all of our parents gardened. I grew up on the East Side of Detroit and everyone gardened.”
So Spivey gathered a group of family members — two sisters and three cousins — and made a pact to carry on their family’s legacy by growing their own food. They started by going to each family members’ house to build raised garden boxes during the spring of 2020, using a simple design with wood sides. They coordinated their planting plans amongst the family members, shared the bounty, and voted on who grew what best.
“It was determined that my greens were the best,” Spivey said. “My sister’s zucchini was the best. One of my cousins had the best garlic and scallions. Another cousin had the best peppers.”
There were some challenges along the way. One of Spivey’s sisters didn’t realize that the flowers on her zucchini would turn to fruit, so she kept picking them. That sister didn’t grow too many zucchini. But in the end, the family feasted together and gave thanks.
“We were very afraid,” Spivey said. “And we vowed that there will never be a time in our life or our kid’s life ever again, that they will know how to eat from the ground.”
In 2020, Spivey spent about $350 to feed her family of three and shared some crops with three other family members. Her last harvest was this past April when she cooked the year’s final harvest of overwintered greens for her family and two other family members.
This year, she’s teaching her two children, seven-year-old Charlotte, and six-year-old Rinzer, how to garden as well. Charlotte favors tomatoes, while Rinzer liked the peppers. He wants to know why they can’t grow oranges. A set of transplants from Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program sits in the shade nearby, ready to be placed into the soil and begin a new growing season.
”In this country, we are consumers. We’ve gotten away from producing and making,” Spivey said. “One thing I know for sure I’ll never go hungry again. And neither will they. They will know how to plant even the simplest things.”
Growing our own
Spivey is one of a growing number of Detroiters who began growing their food for the first time during the pandemic, according to Ashley Atkinson, executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Keep Growing Detroit. The program’s Garden Resource Program offers training, support, seeds, and transplants for home gardeners in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck.
More than 800 new gardens joined the program in 2020, which represented 25% growth from the preceding year — its fastest growth rate since it was established in 2003. KGD also launched an online farm store with curbside pickup amid the pandemic to connect growers with customers, in part because their Grown in Detroit brand stopped selling at the Eastern Market
“We’ve never had a single year where we had that kind of volume growth,” Atkinson said. “Last year was definitely a record-breaker.”
Detroiters joined a national surge in home gardening in 2020, with gardeners reporting spending 42% more time in the dirt amid the pandemic. Demand for seeds also surged in 2020, with some companies unable to keep up with demand. The 144-year-old seed Burpee Seeds company in Pennsylvania temporarily stopped taking orders for the first time in its history.
But soothing anxiety over food supply issues is just one benefit of gardening. Increasing evidence shows that working in green spaces is a boon to mental health. One study revealed that simply looking at green plants reduces blood pressure and muscle tension.
Another found that gardening during the pandemic was associated with lower psychopathological distress. The moderate exercise of gardening is also associated with better physical health outcomes, including reduced body mass index.
Gardening and exposure to green space, in general, may also reduce health inequalities and improve general wellness. Spending time in nature was shown to reduce inequalities in circulatory disease and mortality in income-deprived populations. And gardening with a community may “increase improve wellbeing through increased social contact, culturally valued activities and mitigation of food poverty.” Community gardening efforts like Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program cultivate that sense of community while removing barriers to entry for would-be home gardeners.
Spivey wholeheartedly agrees with the idea that working in the garden was a benefit to her mental health. She is diagnosed with PTSD after having witnessed her best friend take her last breath after suffering a gunshot wound in 2002. She said that spending her weekends planting, weeding, and harvesting always left her feeling calm.
“The pandemic could’ve killed me in more ways than Covid-19,” she said, “but the soil saved me in so many ways, and my mental health was the #1 life jacket.”
Sunday dinner from the garden
Spivey is teaching Rinzer and Charlotte to snap the ends off of green beans back in the kitchen. It’s a new skill for both of them, and some snapped-off ends join the pile of edible beans. But eventually, they get through it, and soon it’s time to saute vegetables.
Spivey uses a cast-iron skillet. It’s another way to connect to her family’s heritage while supporting her health.
“I recently learned one of the reasons that we have traditionally cooked in cast-iron skillets is because you get the iron,” she said. “Historically, in any black family, if you go into their house and you don’t see a cast-iron pan, then they are not cooking in our culture.”
Charlotte chops onion and Rinzor chops mushrooms while Spivey tosses a bit of butter in the pan. When Charlotte quietly asks for a tissue, Spivey realizes the onion has caused her to cry. Spivey is quick to use it as a teaching moment.
“That means it’s a good onion because if it doesn’t make you cry, that means that it’s not good,” she tells her.
Spivey throws a salmon filet into the oven while the vegetables saute. Although it’s too early in the season for these vegetables to have come from Spivey’s own garden, they represent the plants that Spivey intends to grow in her garden this year.
In the meantime, she’ll purchase fresh produce from Keep Growing Detroit’s online marketplace, which local urban farmers stock with their veggies.
Sunday dinners are another essential part of Spivey’s family culture, and this healthful dish shared between Spivey and her two young children hearkens back to her own experience growing up with family and friends.
“Everyone came to our house on Sundays,” she said. “You knew you if you came to her house on Sunday, you had an option of at least two different kinds of meals, and it would always be some type of greens, some type of beans and a really strong protein and a starch.”
For Spivey and her ancestors, cooking a healthy Sunday dinner with fresh-grown greens from the garden is about a life well-lived.
“Sunday, although it’s considered a rest day, it’s really considered the beginning of the week,” she said. “And so it was always important to start your week off with good nutrition, good spiritual nutrition, as well as good spiritual food. Maybe you can’t cook all through the week, but if you cook on Sunday, you’re doing what you need to do.”
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.