By Melanie Wong, MA, RDN
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.
Photo: Drew Farm sign, artwork by Linzell Rice
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 field trip opportunities for students to learn more about how food grows.
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 ten 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.
Photo: 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.
One of the first things you notice when you visit the farm is the large yellow letters on the hill at the farside of the farm that spell out “Drew Farm” and welcome you. The long hoop houses that line the sides of the farm and rows of crops clue you in to where you are— a working farm. What sets Drew Farm apart from other farm to school initiatives is its heavy focus on production. With less than a dozen staff operating the farm, they manage to grow and process thousands of pounds of produce. The 2021 season was the most productive season the farm has yet seen, with 24,000 pounds of produce harvested, which included everything from tomatoes and salad greens, to garlic, and even sweet potatoes.
That produce makes its way to the district’s kitchens and ends up on students’ lunch trays. Chef Kevin Frank, the Assistant Director of Catering and Hospitality, utilizes seasonal menus that incorporate the produce grown at Drew Farm. “The students deserve the best we can give, and there is nothing better than produce we picked that week,” Hargis said. In addition to using the produce grown at Drew Farm, the district also incorporates local purchasing to source other Michigan-grown food and has been a 10 Cents a Meal grantee since the program expanded statewide in 2020.
DPSCD’s presence as a 10 Cents a Meal grantee has also inspired a wonderful new opportunity for all grantees and garden programs around the state. Impressed by the amount of produce Drew Farm produces for district meals, the Michigan Department of Education recently introduced a new pricing tool that helps 10 Cents a Meal grantees like DPSCD invoice products from gardens such as school gardens and those run by 4-H or Future Farmers of America, school farms, and other programs that may be connected to grantees.
The Garden and Donated Produce Guide has national and state-specific pricing information on a per-pound basis for over 40 of the most commonly used fruits and vegetables that grantees serve. Using this information, grantees can assign a value to the produce they grow or that farms have donated.
This means 10 Cents a Meal grantees can use their grants to actually purchase from on-site gardens and help farm to school programs become more sustainable over time. Such gardens are places that offer opportunities for engaging in garden-based educational activities that get children excited about trying foods. They are also places that can build youth leadership and community involvement.
Photo: Elvin Owensby, farm manager at Drew Farm
Witnessing the connection students make with their food holds a special place in Mr. Owensby's heart— right up there with farming itself.
“I just love to be with the kids and see them smile, and see them learning. A lot of kids don’t know where a tomato come from, ain’t know where a pepper come from,” he says as he looks out at those yellow letters on the hill.
Mr. Owensby, in turn, is as important to the history and life of Drew Farm as those big yellow letters.
At nearly 80, his most important role is to “encourage, motivate, and supervise the staff,” said Hargis. “One of the strengths of our team is our family dynamic, and he fits that patriarch—the grandfather, father figure.”
Mr. Elvin Owensby, Detroit’s very own grandfather of school-grown produce, working with his staff to bring fresh food, beauty, and heart to students in the Motor City.
Melanie Wong is the Farm to Early Care and Education Specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, the communications and outreach partner for 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms, a program administered by the Michigan Department of Education and funded for the 2021-2022 school year at $4.5 million.