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Grown in Detroit. 60 minutes, 2010. Mascha & Manfred Poppenk. $19.99.

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REVIEW of Grown in Detroit.

Grown in Detroit tells the story of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, one of only three high schools in the United States that teaches pregnant and parenting teens exclusively. The school is located in Detroit, a few blocks north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in a neighborhood that was once bustling but is now filled with vacant lots and crumbling buildings. Over 300 girls attend the Academy along with 200 babies, many of whom are filmed being rolled through the halls in plastic strollers designed to hold six-babies. The Ferguson Academy is unique not only in serving its homogenous student population, but also in its pedagogy and curriculum. A committed crew of instructors teaches math, science and reading, alongside agro-business analysis, marketing, beekeeping, cider mashing and row farming. The students learn as much from books as they do from picking apples off the ground and weeding row after row of tomato plants. The culmination of a year’s hard work is both advancement to the next grade and a lucrative Saturday morning produce stand at Detroit’s legendary Eastern Market.

No students or teachers are identified in the film. Nor does the film follow or investigate any particular student more than any other. Men teach at Ferguson, yet little mention is made of fathers and their role in child-rearing. It’s 33 minutes into the film before a student is asked about her baby’s father. She reports that he has not been to see his newborn daughter. He, nor any other absent father, is mentioned again; though at one point a car full of young men are seen parked outside the front entrance, its passengers numbly gawking at the austerely uniformed female students. The film is similarly stoic in its presentation. It does not advocate as much as educate. Here is a school full of young women. They are learning farming. They are learning about the healthy alternatives to the fast food provided by liquor stores which dot their communities, and outnumber grocery stores in Detroit. They are learning how to grade apples.

Certainly Detroit experiences winter, yet one could imagine the Academy is somehow protected from it, as the filmmakers Mascha and Manfred Poppenk have captured only the warm breezy sunny days of late summer and early fall. The students’ white shirts, many stretched from pregnancy, contrast the green leaves and blue skies. It is a pastoral and idyllic scene, and the viewer might find him or herself forgetting all the challenges that lay in front of these young women. Most are five or six generations removed from farming. Many are living below the poverty line. Only one in five have access to a vehicle. The rest must often brave two-hour bus rides, not because they live so far from school, but because Detroit’s mass- transit system has been systematically undercut and underfunded. Most are being advised by a healthcare system that prefers the efficiency of bottle-feeding over breast-feeding.

Yet despite the uphill climb that most of the young women face, the film is not overly depressing. Nor is it unduly encouraging. Instead it seems preoccupied with simply and accurately depicting a school and a faculty that have little social capital and few financial resources, but a host of human capital and natural resources. While sales of the Academy’s beans, basil and honey may not be providing college tuition, it is not impossible to believe that they may someday provide three healthy meals a day and extra income for a population of students that are in dire need.

Reviewed by:
Douglas Bessette
Michigan State University

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS for Grown in Detroit:

1. Have you ever been to Detroit, Michigan? When was the last time? How has it changed since you’ve seen it last? If not, what images do you have in your mind about this city?

2. What do you think some of the challenges might be for women who are both young mothers and a students?

3. Are there any advantages that these students have over those in other schools in Detroit? Or in other schools across the country?

4. How much experience do you have with gardening or farming? How did your experience compare to other students’ experiences in your high school class?

5. Do you think teaching farming could change the education system in the U.S.? If so, how might it change our education system? Do you think it is a good idea to teach all students gardening or farming? Why or why not?

6. Do you see any different roles for young men and young women with regards to gardening and farming? Why or why not?

7. Where do you see the Ferguson Academy being in ten years? Twenty years? Why is it a good or bad model?

8. What do you think of the Ferguson Academy’s teaching style?

9. How close is your nearest grocery store?

10. How often do you shop at farmers’ markets? Do you shop there for a specific reason?

11. Where do you think most of the produce at grocery stores comes from? Would you rather it be from a local farm? Why or why not?

12. What is the role of government in fostering these types of classes or schools? What is the role of community members?

13. What role do youth specifically have in food system education? Are they merely passive recipients of this information or do they have an active role to play?

in cooperation with
Michigan State University
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