Dr. Laura DeLind: Reconnecting Places and People

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Photo by Jeremy Herliczek

When asked who comprises her family, Dr. Laura DeLind began with the answer one might expect: her husband Doug, daughter Jody and son David. She then went on to describe a group she also considers her family: the staff and volunteers at the Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing. “I find that neighborhood just fascinating, full of energy, creativity and diversity,” said DeLind. “There’s something that draws me there. It’s an area full of assets, full of people with skills and abilities and energy.” As a food system consultant for the Allen Neighborhood Center, DeLind has spent several years assisting in the development of programs including the Hunter Park Community GardenHouse. Her involvement primarily deals with neighborhood farmers markets, urban gardens and farms as well as the connection between local residents and the food they produce. “Place-based urban food systems are a sense of belonging,” said DeLind. “The idea is to reconnect people with their communities. We’ve kind of been disconnected between our food and us … the way we interact with our neighbors, the natural processes.” As senior academic specialist in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University (MSU) and assistant professor for a number of courses in the residential college of arts and humanities (RCAH), DeLind spends a great deal of time studying and teaching the social, political and economic impacts of our food system. She challenges students and colleagues to think about where the food we purchase comes from and what that means for today and our future. On many levels, DeLind expresses that food is a great deal more than something we eat. “Food is more than just a package of nutritional elements. Food has social and economic and political relationships embedded in it; it has meaning, history, culture and community,” said DeLind. “We need to look at those elements as much as the nutritional elements if we’re going to have a robust, sustainable food system.” Described by her peers as a pillar in our region’s local food movement, DeLind isn’t satisfied solely with the politics and philosophy of her field. She’s dedicated to applying her knowledge to the world around us and making a sustainable, organic food system a reality for Mid-Michigan. Along with her colleague Linda Anderson, DeLind co-founded the Urbandale Farm (or farmlette, as DeLind affectionately describes it) the only one of its kind in Lansing. Located on Lansing’s eastside and made possible by a lease from the Ingham County Land Bank, this half-acre urban farm began in 2010. With much excitement and anticipation, DeLind and Anderson have great hopes for the project’s future. “We plan on continuing to expand until we reach about five acres,” said DeLind. “The purpose is to use the spaces in ways that are productive; that increase access to fresh food and involve neighbors.” Similar to the GardenHouse project (which DeLind now has very little day-to-day involvement with), the goal of the Urbandale Farm is to have the community sustaining a majority of its operations. This will be accomplished through the planting and cultivating of the food as well as the distribution. “We’ve got new projects coming this season,” said DeLind. “We’re going to start something called a veggie wagon. It’s going to be a pushcart and we’re going to ask middle school kids to be the vendors. We’re going to take it around Urbandale for those who may not be able to get out easily or have not come to the farm during market days.” Ultimately, Urbandale is the essence of a community project that DeLind hopes to inspire in areas throughout the region and beyond: a self-sustaining, neighborhood project that’s much bigger than fresh produce. “I would like to have these projects spin off, for neighbors to take ownership of these assets and begin using them in ways that are creative, productive … that are shared and benefit the larger whole,” said DeLind. “It’s not only about food — it’s to build commons, so when people come together they can share stories and interact with one another; share recipes and political insight. It becomes a place, a grounding, to take on responsibility and share.” Projects like the Urbandale Farm and GardenHouse not only help to create a sense of community and empowerment for residents, they’re providing healthy eating and living alternatives for those who may otherwise not have access to it. While it’s difficult to even discuss organic these days without mentioning the high financial costs of these foods, DeLind explains all foods come with a cost — some now, and some later. “Organic does cost more, and there are reasons for it — very good reasons,” said DeLind. “Typically, the ‘real costs’ (of non-organic food) have not been externalized: the degradation of the land, the use of petrochemical inputs, the subsidies for transportation of industrially raised food … these are paid for after you buy the food. The volume comes at a cost — a social cost as well as a personal cost. These costs aren’t paid directly, they’re paid later … in hospital bills, in disease.” Fortunately, DeLind along with other pioneers in the organic and local food movement recognize these challenges and “real costs” of industrially raised food. Today, there are more ways than ever to work locally grown food into your diet (and budget). DeLind encourages buying foods that are in season and preserving or storing them; this keeps costs low on foods that may be out of season. Thanks to previous sponsors such as LAFCU, CATA, Jack Davis, PHP and MSUFCU, the Allen Street Farmers Market offers unique programs and maintain costs. The market also accepts Bridge Cards, one of the first and only in the state of Michigan. “It’s absolutely wrong to say ‘if you’re poor, you should be doing x, y and z — and if you’re not poor, you don’t have to,’” said DeLind. “We should all be supporting small-scale producers.” With spring knocking on our back door, DeLind is anxious for the season and projects ahead. She encourages everyone to get involved in the movement in any way, great or small. “People can start growing themselves … that’s what the Lansing Urban Farm project is about. You don’t have to grow a lot — you can have a pepper plant or a small tomato plant. It gives you a sense of what goes into producing food; it makes it a whole lot easier to understand why food that’s fresh, locally produced and organically raised is worth what it costs.” All financial differences aside, the heart of DeLind’s passion lies in the people — those who grow it, those who consume it and all of the “families” in between. There is a profound connection that we have as a people, and so much of it is tied to a process we think so little of. As for DeLind, she will no doubt continue to build her impressive resume of projects and contributions, “as long as I continue to eat and breathe,” she said. “I plan to continue to garden, to farm, to write and work with others … in these wonderfully creative and dirty ways.”
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Tags: allen neighborhood center, Dr. Laura DeLind, Hunter Park GardenHouse, local food movement