ABOVE: A vibrant welcome to Drew Farm. Sign artwork by Linzell Rice.
For Elvin Owensby, it’s the little things that count, like looking out at the farm he helped build and beautify—a farm that was built upon a school district’s decision to swap baseball fields for fields of vegetables.
Drew Farm, the Detroit Public Community School District’s (DPSCD) production-focused farm operating on the grounds of the Charles R. Drew Transition Center, is the perfect complement to Michigan’s pioneering 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms program. 10 Cents a Meal is a state-funded program that provides matching funds for schools and non-school sponsors of USDA child nutrition programs to purchase fruits, vegetables, and dry beans from the state’s growers. The legislature, which passed funding for the now $4.5 million program for FY 2022, expects schools to serve their kids Michigan-grown food, educate them about it, and even promote Michigan-grown food within their communities. These are all priorities that DPSCD, a 10 Cents a Meal grantee, has had since the inception of its farm to school initiatives.
DPSCD began its farm to school initiatives with the Detroit School Garden Collaborative in 2012 and started out with just two school gardens—there are now almost 90 gardens across the district that serve as learning labs for students to connect with nature and food. This year Drew Farm is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and after a decade of work the farm has grown from one hoophouse to the current six hoophouses plus one-and-a-half acres of outdoor growing space. The farm also provides fieldtrip opportunities for students to learn more about how food grows.
Elvin Owensby, farm manager at Drew Farm
In the classroom, partners like FoodCorps Michigan service members and the Physical Education and Nutrition Working Together (PE-Nut) program support its food and nutrition education activities. “If students don’t want the food, we’re kind of spinning our wheels. So those educational initiatives really encourage students to pick those healthy options,” said farm to school program supervisor Matt Hargis.
Owensby, the farm manager, spent years working for the district as head custodian and came out of retirement to first volunteer at Drew Farm before then being hired on as one of the original crew members—that was 10 years ago.
And he’s not the only longstanding staff member at Drew Farm. Roxanne Brown, Sarita Steele, and Matt Hargis have been with the operation for nine years, and Colleen Walker for eight years.
Office of School Nutrition Farm to School staff crunching into some Michigan apples to celebrate the Great Lakes Apple crunch in October 2021.
Owensby comes from a farming background, having grown up in a rural community in Washtenaw County, and Hargis studied agriculture and sustainability in college. However, most of the staff did not have agricultural experience prior to working for the district’s Office of School Nutrition’s farm to school program. They instead have honed their skills over the years working and learning together. “The special part is showing what normal, everyday, special people can accomplish when they work together—our program thrives on our passion. You take away the people and there is nothing,” Hargis said of the dedicated staff.