Detroit’s North End neighborhood is a community on the rise. New developments, job centers, and an engaged community are all a part of the upswing. But it has something else, too: a three-acre farm.
The North End is positioning agriculture at the center of its resurgence. It’s home to the first Sustainable Urban “Agrihood” – an alternative neighborhood that’s built around the farm-to-table model featured mainly in rural and suburban settings.
The agrihood project is a result of a partnership between the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, BASF, and Sustainable Brands. Tyson Gersh, founder of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), first hatched the idea for an urban farm as a student at the University of Michigan.
Gersh and co-founder Darin McLeskey developed the idea through an innovation challenge at the University of Michigan. Michigan Urban Farming Initiative took home the top prize and was awarded seed funding to kickstart the summer 2012 harvest season.
“The role of Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is not simply to use vacant land to feed food-insecure individuals, but rather to position itself as a driving force in rethinking how urban spaces are developed and to model the many ways that urban agriculture adds value to modern urban spaces,” Gersh said in an interview with Crain’s Detroit Business.
Since then, the initiative has brought together thousands of volunteers from all over the world who have given upwards of 50,000 working hours and harvested 50,000 pounds of organic produce. The produce is then provided to the neighborhood, churches, food pantries, and more.
University startups are a national trend . At Michigan, preparing students for entrepreneurial success has been part of the fabric of the university since the nation’s first small business management course hit the books at the Ross School of Business in 1927. Since then, the university has seen an expansion of entrepreneurial offerings, with the most explosive growth occurring in the past few years.
Tyson Gersh isn’t the only University of Michigan student partnering with Detroit on innovative new initiatives. Detroit residents who need a lift to and from the grocery store at a reasonable price can now take advantage of a new ride service.
Offered by Cart, a University of Michigan startup that connects people to healthy, fresh groceries, the service will offer $10 round trip rides via Lyft. The startup is partnering with a large regional grocery chain, which is donating the other $10 it costs per ride, said Cart CEO Stacey Matlen, who graduated from U-M with a master’s degree in public health last year.
“Cart’s goal is to connect individuals who do not have ready access to transportation with a safe, timely and low-priced round trip ride to a grocery store,” Matlen said. “Customers who spread the word about Cart to family and friends will be eligible to earn free trips to the store during the pilot.”
Matlen founded Cart with partner Mikaela Rodkin during one of U-M’s twelve innovation and entrepreneurship competitions. “There are so many different opportunities available at the University of Michigan; different competitions, different races-to-the-finish on finding a solution for something. I really admire this program and that it allows people to come to a conclusion or solution after many months of searching for it,” said Rodkin.
Cart’s future plans include exploring more supermarket partnerships and launching not just a mobile app, but also a call center or SMS technology to better accommodate their customers.
Startup founders like Matlen, Rodkin, and Gersh are among hundreds at the University of Michigan aiming to make an impact in Detroit and beyond. They are enabled by the university’s 15 centers and programs related to entrepreneurship, focusing on different aspects of entrepreneurship education, student challenges, and community events.
With greater support for startups at universities across the U.S., more innovations will make it into the hands of potential customers. And if U-M’s experience is anything to go by, the universities will measure their impact not just in degrees but also in new local jobs.
By Kristen Kerecman