Benton Harbor Grows: Food, Poverty, and Community Resilience


Chris Bedford

In Brief

The city of Benton Harbor, Michigan is beset with economic, community, and health problems related to an inadequate supply of fresh, nutritious food. Less than one percent (1%) of the city’s total food expenditures go to local businesses and local farmers. Benton Harbor Grows! is a project that proposes to change this situation through a system of intentional urban gardens drawing on the skills, memories, and experience of residents. This article looks at how the skills and resilience borne from a community experience with poverty can offer a path towards food self-sufficiency and community economic sustainability.


Key Concepts

  • The transition to a post-petroleum food economy requires personal and community skills that exist with the memories and experiences of poor communities.

  • Urban food production from community gardens offers a path toward community economic resilience based on existing community resources.

  • Sustainability is based on a renewed system of community and local economic relationships.

In June 2003, Benton Harbor, Michigan—a city of 12,000 located on the Lake Michigan shore in the southwest corner of the state—experienced its fourth race riot in 50 years. For two nights, hundreds of young African Americans set fires and vandalized police cars as they battled 300 state troopers and local police.

Although the immediate cause for the 2003 riot was a police incident, many thought the real source of the violence was the mounting frustration among young African Americans over their lack of economic opportunity and a pervasive white paternalism towards their community that bordered on racism. Six years later, the people of Benton Harbor are still poor and angry.

Benton Harbor’s numbers reveal a portrait of a Third World city surrounded by a First World region. Benton Harbor’s population is ninety-two percent (92%) African-American. Household income is just a little over $19,000 in a state with a household average of $47,000. Sixty percent (60%) of Benton Harbor households do not have access to a car, forcing residents to rely on a network of mini-marts and party stores for their food.

The resulting food desert has contributed to epidemics of nutrition-related chronic disease. Thirty-four-point-four percent (34.4%) of Benton Harbor residents are obese compared to twenty-eight-point-eight percent (28.8%) of Michigan residents overall. Forty-two percent (42%) suffer from hypertension. Eighteen-point-six percent (18.6%) have diabetes. Today, Benton Harbor is not only poor, it is sick, malnourished, and isolated.

Immediately after the 2003 riots, the State of Michigan offered some help to the city and other urban poverty centers in Michigan. But that marginal assistance has largely disappeared as Michigan’s out-of-control state budget crisis endangers the continued existence of basic government services.

Benton Harbor, like many American communities, is increasingly on its own. Residents are slipping over the edge of an economic abyss with no one willing or able to help pull them back. This article is based on the belief that our collective future is inextricably intertwined with the future of poor communities like Benton Harbor. The question is, “How do we build that better future?”

A Triangle in Four Dimensions

The sustainability triangle postulates an equal concern for its three corners: economy, environment, and equity (social). But, in reality, equity receives far less attention than the other two corners, particularly as the real costs of environmental degradation, global warming, peak oil, financial speculation, and subsidized and unfair global trade begin to dominate the world’s balance sheets.

As the crisis in the post World War II/Bretton Woods global system deepens, providing adequate investment and aid to places like Benton Harbor has dropped far behind the bailout of banks “too big to fail” and institutions like AIG on the government’s priority list. This is a fundamental mistake.

In design terms, the weakening of one of the corners of the sustainability triangle makes the entire structure unstable and less resilient. Put another way, Benton Harbor’s poverty and growing hopelessness fundamentally undermine progress towards a new economy in Michigan, a new economy built on true ecological, economic, and social sustainability. What happens to the least among us, happens to all of us.

So what would happen if we were honest about the severity of our situation? And in that acknowledgment, what if we took the sustainability triangle seriously? Could the path forward be something other than being “less bad”?

Benton Harbor—with all its history, problems, and lack of resources—represents an opportunity not to be just “less bad” but to achieve something good. Something happens when we take equity seriously. We discover a fourth corner in the sustainability struggle—a corner that makes the two-dimensional triangle into a tetrahedron—a much stronger and more resilient shape.

That fourth corner is community.

Community is the most important natural resource of the 21st Century. Benton Harbor’s future lies not in the arrival, like a visitor from outer space, of some new corporate offices or revolutionary manufacturing technology or even federal grant, but in the resources that already exist within its human community, in the resources that could develop within its human community.

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

In June 2009, I was hired by the Benton Harbor City Commission to develop a Local Food System Plan for the city. My small contract was paid not out of grant funds but from the city’s limited General Fund.

How a privileged European American like myself came to be hired by a poor African American city is a story in itself, one that involves a film I made called COMING HOME: E.F. Schumacher and the Reinvention of the Local Economy. The film is about the work of the E.F. Schumacher Society to create community-based economic institutions that help develop and finance a thriving local economy.

Benton Harbor City Manager Richard Marsh showed COMING HOME at more than a dozen community meetings. “I wanted the city to focus on building an economy using our own resources,” said Marsh. “A local economy built on retaining our consumer dollars in the community is something we could do. We didn’t have to wait on Washington or Lansing to act.”

Urban Gardens.Dr_. Roi copy.jpg
Chris Bedford

Food offers a principal opportunity for this community economic reinvention. In Benton Harbor’s case, residents spend over $35 million annually on food purchases. Virtually none of that amount remains in the local economy. Even a ten percent (10%) retention of these food expenditures within the city’s economy could produce $14 million in new economic activity—about $3,700 per Benton Harbor household.

A local food system could further improve the economic and human welfare of the city by reducing nutrition-related chronic disease through increased access to healthy, fresh food. Such a local system also offers numerous entrepreneurial opportunities for small businesses. Such a system had existed before.

In 1920, Benton Harbor had a vibrant, thriving local food system with forty-one local food stores and ten neighborhood bakeries. Virtually all the food consumed was produced by local farmers and preserved in local food-processing businesses for year-round access. Food was exported at considerable profit by boat and train to Chicago. All this was accomplished using far less petroleum energy than is consumed today (consumption levels approaching the Peak Oil goal of twenty percent (20%) of 2009 levels of petroleum use by 2050).

Could a 21st Century version of that 1920 local food system be built in Benton Harbor today?

Benton Harbor Grows

Benton Harbor is located on the western edge of Berrien County, Michigan—one of the most fertile, productive agricultural areas on the planet. With 30+ documented microclimates, Berrien County grows over 50 crops commercially.

Benton Harbor is built on four and a half square miles of the county’s prime farmland. One third of the city is located on a floodplain along the north side of the Paw Paw River as it enters Lake Michigan. Historically, most of the city’s industry and commercial downtown was located here. Today, the area has vast vacant lots, the site of torn down factories and food processing plants.

The residential areas of the city are located on a fertile ridge overlooking the river and floodplain. Most of Benton Harbor’s 12,000 residents live in this area of approximately three square miles. There are over 600 vacant lots in the residential neighborhoods, approximately one vacant lot for every six households.

So Benton Harbor has enough fertile and available land to begin significant but not totally self-sufficient local food production. Its people are malnourished and often hungry. But did it have an interest in gardening or the will to grow its own food? Would a new generation that grew up playing videogames be willing to get its hands dirty, working in the soil? What obstacles existed to the creation of an effective local food system?

“The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world… all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.” —Muhammad Yunus

Poverty and Resilience

African Americans have been economically oppressed throughout most of the history of the United States, first as slaves and then as residents of Jim Crow America. One result is that African Americans have developed a culture of survival—one where families and individuals gather together in churches and small communities to pool resources, to provide help to each other, and to make sure their children have better opportunities than their parents. This community interdependence has declined significantly during the racial integration of the last fifty years as new generations shunned elements of what was termed their “slave” past. But the financial chaos on Wall Street and in the economy has highlighted anew these community traditions and practices.

“The current economic crisis has not impacted my side of the tracks in the same way as other communities,” said Spencer Norman, a community organizer from Muskegon, Michigan who is part of the Benton Harbor Project. “We didn’t have as far to fall. And we remember how to survive at the bottom. We have been there before.”

The conditions in Benton Harbor, Michigan—high unemployment, huge numbers living below the poverty line, enormous health problems related to obesity and weight gain even as many residents go hungry at different times during the month, and poor access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food—represent some of the most severe forms of social, economic, and food-related forms of injustice. But the problems in this one community are not unique. The economic downturn of 2008-2009 further highlighted and exacerbated these problems and called for a more systemic and radical approach to economic, social, and food sector changes.

One community memory dealt with food. In Benton Harbor, the tradition of African American self-reliance still existed in a series of small individual and community gardens. Individuals, mostly retired and elderly but some young and inspired, grew food in their backyards or on vacant lots to feed their extended families, neighbors, and church members.

“My father and grandfather had gardens in Arkansas where I grew up,” said James Valentine, 85 years old, of Benton Harbor’s 4th Ward. “I have been gardening here [in Benton Harbor] for 40 years.”

When the Benton Harbor High School’s Leadership Team Garden was left unattended as school ended and students went off to college and jobs, Catherine Washington, retired and living across the street, took over its care.

Pastor Willie Lark of the St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, a small food business owner in Benton Harbor (Lark’s Bar-b-que on Main Street), has organized the young people in his church to plant a large garden. “We have to grow our own food,” said Pastor Lark. “We need to teach our children how to be self-sufficient, how to survive.”

Ms. Emma Kinnard, a trained horticulturalist and a retired teacher, started the Benton Harbor Children’s Garden on Baird Street with her own money to teach neighborhood children critical thinking skills through growing flowers and vegetables. “I use math and reading in our garden work,” said Ms. Kinnard. She is currently constructing a hoop house (an unheated greenhouse) to extend the growing season further into the school year.

In all, my block-by-block survey found 22 small gardens in Benton Harbor, cultivated by gardeners working alone, without connection to each other. When I asked these citizen-gardeners if they would expand their gardens if they had help all but one said “yes.” All agreed to be an information and skill resource for neighbors who wanted to plant their own gardens. Nobody had ever asked them before.

I proposed that Benton Harbor develop a network of urban gardens to transform not only the diet, but the economy of the city. The community had fertile land, established need, and skilled gardeners—the components for an urban garden project to create 50 to 100 new urban gardens in the city during 2010. Plans to sell the resulting food at the city’s farmers market, at neighborhood food stands, and to the local Meals on Wheels operation were drawn up. The project was called Benton Harbor Grows! The City Commission was behind the effort one hundred percent.

“This is something we CAN do,” said City Commissioner Juanita Henry. “We have to eat. Why not make sure that our food money stays here to help our community grow?” Commissioner Henry is leading Benton Harbor Grows! pulling together disparate elements in the community.

In spite of favorable elements for its initiation, Benton Harbor Grows! faced formidable obstacles. Many younger residents had only experienced the high salt, fat, and sugar processed food available in the Party Stores and Mini-Marts of the Benton Harbor food desert. Though information about healthy food was available, it was of limited effectiveness in the dominant media environment.

Swimming Upstream Against the Twinkie Tide

The $1 trillion U.S. food industry spends $25 billion/year on advertising food and drink. A sizable portion of this expenditure targets young people. The monopoly food corporations that dominate the industry have long recognized the importance of establishing brand loyalties in children, even as young as 2 years old. Not only are children targeted by advertising, many snack/fast foods are formulated to addict young consumers to their salty, sugary, fat-laden taste.

Contrast the industrial food industry’s youth-targeted multi-billion dollar advertising behemoth with the $1 million/year spent on the “5 a day campaign” to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables, and you get an idea about the odds facing Benton Harbor Grows! within this larger frame. To be successful, this effort had to counter the dominant media and commercial culture around food.

The long hours many Benton Harbor young people spent in front of their TVs had replaced, for many, the connection to their neighborhood, their church, and their community. The idea that gardening was somehow “slave work” had to be overcome. In some measure, any initiative to develop a local food system had to rebuild the connections between people in Benton Harbor.

The Local Food Summit

On November 21, 2009, that rebuilding began with a local food summit held at the Benton Harbor High School. Over one hundred interested residents attended, with 21 signing up to host new urban gardens. The choir of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church rocked the room with gospel visions of food and the future. Three-dozen copies of a 17-minute DVD that presents a narrated version of the Power Point Presentation detailing the local food system plan were distributed. Fourteen “Benton Harbor Garden Hero” volunteers were honored. The process of change had begun.

“They have to learn to trust each other again,” said Dr. Leroi Ray of the Farm Research Cooperative. “Poverty is so destructive of the spirit. When they get their fingers in the dirt, they will connect with something other than nature. They will discover each other in new ways. And good will come from that.”