People often point and stare when they see Growing Hope’s mobile truck farm – affectionately named Clifford – cruising down the streets of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Not only are there big collard and lettuce leaves flopping about wildly in the wind, but Clifford is a beat up, old pick-up truck that has seen better days. Trust me, it really is quite a scene.
Growing Hope is a 10-year-old, non-profit organization whose mission is to improve lives and communities through gardening and healthy food access. Though we work at increasing healthy food access from many levels and directions, a central component to our work has always been youth-focused food education. We run after school clubs, summer camps, classroom visits and host field trips at our Center (a working urban farm). Clifford provides the core of our fleet of educational tools. As food educators, we adore Clifford because he encapsulates our seed to stomach approach: we teach kids all the steps from starting seeds to harvesting produce to prepare healthy dishes or preserve them for later use. When Clifford rolls up to crowd of children, he is greeted with many smiling faces and excited fingers that reach to pick one deliciously ripe sungold tomato, just within their reach.
The official truck farm movement began as a garden education project in Brooklyn. New York. There is even a documentary about it, appropriately named, “Truck Farm.” Once we heard of this amazing project, we knew we had to be a part of it! Shortly thereafter, we joined with 25 other trucks around the country to expand the message of this great project: growing food can be fun, easy and rewarding, even if you don’t have a lot of land.
As Clifford aged, we transitioned him into a new role in May 2011 with the help of some volunteers. He went from being a loyal, all-purpose truck used to transport many gardening and farmers’ market materials, to being a helpful tool that provides hands-on, garden-based education to our community’s youth who don’t necessarily have gardens available at their homes, community centers, or schools. In 2012, over 300 area youth saw or cared for him.
As you can imagine, Clifford is a hit with the under-18 crowd; but grown-ups also enjoy seeing Clifford when he visits our
local farmers’ markets, community fairs and parades. In fact, it is usually at these venues where Clifford gets tended to, planted, and cared for by the tens to hundreds of loving families that lend a hand or two to the cause, if only for a moment as they pass by our educational booth.
The work of Clifford is never really out of season. In the late summer we plant him with cold-season crops that can survive (if only barely) a Michigan winter. And then we attach a low tunnel so that we can use him as a demonstration of year-round gardening. It’s really fun and rewarding to pick some beet and radish greens, fire up our adobe oven, and make a delicious pizza in the dead of winter with middle schoolers. They eat it. They love it. Thank you Clifford!
Lastly, our absolute favorite quality of Clifford is that he really embodies the core characteristics of our community: he’s a little worn out, but quite resilient and full of life! So, the next time you are looking at an old, worn-out truck, a tread-bare rubber tire, or you see a lonely galosh, know that you can transform that old relic into a productive garden space - all you need is a little love and a lot of imagination!
Danielle Gartner, Program Manager, Growing Hope. Danielle is a Michigander who loves working with youth and adults to help them learn to grow food. Danielle was first introduced to the world of community food systems work as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Cleveland and later solidified this love through working with farmers in Thailand and training teachers to grow food in Flint, Michigan.