The Governor of Michigan, Jennifer M. Granholm, proclaimed this week “Local Foods Week” to encourage schools, restaurants, hospitals, and other institutions to look for and use foods grown and produced in Michigan on their menu offerings, helping to create new markets for Michigan farmers and providing a fresher, healthier alternative for the state’s school children, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

gardening1-featured.jpg“Local foods are fresher, taste better and retain more of their nutrients,” Granholm said.  “Buying local foods supports Michigan farmers and strengthens our food and agriculture industry which contributes more than $70 billion annually to the state’s economy.  I encourage schools, restaurants, and cafeterias to add a taste of Michigan to their menus.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture is sponsoring the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit May 17-19. This nationwide movement is becoming a permanent feature of school meals. The conference will teach attendees about initiatives involving farmers, pre-school, K-12 and childcare facilities, hospitals, colleges, prisons, and other institutions.

Community gardens having been popping up all over Detroit.  Although cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle have shown interest in urban agriculture, no city seems to have as much potential for urban farming as Detroit, where there are many vacant lots, and land is cheap.

“Most other cities aren’t quite ready to think about large-scale agriculture,” said Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, which has plans to create the world’s largest urban farm in the city. “We have vacant land and that used to be something we were ashamed of.”

According to a national wire service, the vacant property in Detroit covers nearly the same space as the entire city of San Francisco. New York, which has more than twice as much land as Detroit, has only an estimated 11,000 vacant acres, according to its planning department.  It is estimated that Detroit has more than 25,000 acres of vacant land.

Hantz Farms is in talks with the state to use 40 acres of the state fairgrounds for a demonstration farm before expanding to other parts of the city.  It plans to raise fruit and vegetables as well as plants for landscaping.

John Hantz has promised to invest $30 million in the project aimed at providing fresh food to residents, creating jobs, and making the city a leader in urban farming.

Some community growers are skeptical about the plan. Community activists worry a big for-profit venture might not benefit Detroit residents.

“What’s making urban agriculture interesting and sustainable is the small scale. A few lots in a community, potentially bringing some produce to market,” said Frank Donner, who has helped run the Birdtown Community Garden for the past six years. “If you start getting bigger, it loses its niche.”

Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation Inc., which specializes in substance abuse treatment, has showed interest in large-scale agriculture in the city.  The organization has proposed Recovery Park, a ten year, $220 million project that would create organic farms in four struggling neighborhoods.

According to Gary Wozniak, the nonprofit’s chief development officer, the organization is waiting to see the city’s new agriculture zoning regulations, but it expects to use land now owned by the city, state, schools, and land banks.

“It’s really a big job creation engine,” Wozniak said. “We’re looking to rebuild these neighborhoods.”

By putting these vacant lots to use, planners hope to discourage the illegal dumping that has been a problem in these neighborhoods. A partial draft, released several months ago, lists 20 goals including environmental, economic, social, and health benefits.