The official Michigan State University brick
Food sustainability is a major issue in underfunded and underrepresented neighborhoods. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on access to healthy food options in low-income neighborhoods and also showed how delicate the food industry is.
Communities have relied on food banks and urban farms to feed families during the various waves of the pandemic. A native Detroiter and agriculturalist is shifting the narrative of food in the city with the help of greenhouses.
The Motor City Brick to Farmer Challenge is an initiative launched by Ashley Powell with the goal of helping feed the city. The challenge looks to sell 50 million customized bricks with the funds raised going to support the construction of greenhouses across the city. The Challenge hopes to build 100 greenhouses in Detroit by 2030.
“You buy a brick and record a video shoutout to Detroit and we take those funds and use them to turn into a greenhouse,” says Powell.
Each brick serves as a keepsake and helps to employ Detroiters. For every 475 bricks sold, the challenge can create a 4-year, $19,000-a-year agriculture job. Wanting to change the landscape of Detroit and allow food security to shift, the challenge hopes to provide Detroiters with healthy produce.
“I want it to go well, but we have to do something about how Detroit looks. There’s a lot of people doing things…. Food security is always a big issue and our population is steadily growing,” says Powell.
A graduate of Michigan State University’s environmental studies program, Powell applied to become a certified licensed carrier of Michigan State University logo bricks. With all the prerequisites the idea took some time to get off the ground. Taking the last few years to develop the concept and business plan, Powell is now ready to launch full-scale into the challenge.
“I took several years to play around with it. I went in a lot of different directions. All this time, I’ve been meeting with people and it would never stick,” says Powell. “It’s been a lot of talking and a lot of thinking going on. The biggest challenge had been getting licensing through MSU. It was a lot of paperwork.”
With more than two million farms across the country, small local and urban farms make up a small percentage. In Detroit, almost 1,500 community farms exist across the city with these small urban farms responsible for carrying Detroit residents and their families through the pandemic. Introducing new greenhouses to the city will also bring another food source to where it is needed most.
“I have a passion for change and that’s the goal,” says Powell.
Construction of the greenhouses will also have a potential positive impact on the economy of the city. One of the goals of the challenge is to employ members of the community to help hand pack food grown in the greenhouses and get it ready for distribution.
“The goal is to employee 7,000 people within the city limits to work in the greenhouses,” says Powell.
The initiative will also use the funds to purchase uniforms for employees and to buy a warehouse where food products will be cleaned and processed by hand.
Through the greenhouses, Powell hopes to grow seven different crops, build 25 mini-grocery stores in Detroit and continue to build the community brick-by-brick.
“The challenge is going to be the largest challenge launched after the ice bucket challenge for ALS. We have to do this for Detroit,” says Powell.
For Powell, access to food, the issue of hunger and health issues are important in Detroit. Looking to take over the food industry in the city, The Motor City Brick to Farmer Challenge is now accepting orders and taking steps to earn the city’s support.