Former U-M running back Vincent Smith—with a hoe in hand—is inspiring athletes to promote healthy eating in urban communities.
On a blustery day in early March, Vincent Smith, ’12, a former Wolverine running back, surveyed a large piece of land stretched out before him. “I think it is about the size of two football fields,” Smith speculated of the acreage located behind Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School in Flint, Michigan.
“I paced it out last week,” he said, before describing his blueprint for the space—to plant, not play, on the vast lot. “I am picturing a pumpkin patch over there, some raspberry bushes here, and a hoop house for winter growing.” His face brightened as he pictured children from the school and members of the community feasting on the colorful, nutritious food.
Though Smith was once considered ferocious on the football field—his U-M statistics over four seasons include 1,269 rushing yards, 435 receiving yards, and 17 touchdowns—his energy is now firmly focused on his role as the founder of Team Gardens, a nonprofit with the mission of increasing access to healthy food while reducing juvenile crime and violent behaviors in urban communities.
Smith and fellow football player Martavious Odoms, ’12, envisioned Team Gardens during their sophomore year at U-M. Both men grew up in Pahokee, Fla. and shared a desire to give something back to their economically challenged hometown, specsfically, something that would promote better health. Pahokee’s population is around 6,000, with a median household income of just $27,000. It also has limited access to fresh produce, with the nearest large grocery store a 40-minute drive away.
“Martavious and I thought it would be cool to plant our own gardens and create a safe environment for kids to come play and pick fresh fruit.” — Vincent Smith
Ironically, Pahokee has very rich soil, locally dubbed “the muck,” which in the town’s heyday earned it the label of “winter vegetable capital of the world.” But in the 1980s, agribusinesses arrived and opted to grow sugar rather than vegetables and replace workers with machines. That combination led to a collapse of the local economy in the 1990s and high unemployment.
“There is a lot of crime, obesity, and diabetes in Pahokee, and the only way out is to be an athlete,” Smith says of the town 100 miles north of Miami, which is also known for the high number of NFL players it produces.
“Since our town has this muck, Martavious and I thought it would be cool to plant our own gardens and create a safe environment for the kids to come play and pick fresh fruit,” says Smith, who also wanted the children to experience the benefits of teamwork, something he and Odoms had enjoyed as amateur athletes. By their senior year of college, the two football players were finally ready to launch their nonprofit rather than pursue NFL careers. The problem was, neither man knew how to garden or create a website for their cause.
Enter Sonya Sutherland, ’03, a Web developer, graphic designer, and recreational gardener. The two football players met her in a U-M film class where she was the audiovisual technician. “We became friends because we all had dreadlocks,” jokes Sutherland.
Together, the three created Team Gardens. By pairing athletes with their hometown communities, the organization aims to inspire area youth to eat better and adopt healthier behaviors. To launch the project, the team sold T-shirts in 2012 and organized a Kickstarter campaign with the name #Eating Project— the latter raising nearly $40,000, thanks in large part to support from the U-M alumni community.
By the summer of 2013, the three were hard at work in Florida, having secured a half-acre plot of land with the help of their former football coach and a Pahokee pastor. Also invaluable to the project was Roger Horne of Urban Greenworks, a Miami-based nonprofit organization that creates environmental projects and food security programs in urban communities throughout South Florida. “Roger came to Pahokee and basically taught us how to garden,” says Smith, who to this day is
taking classes in urban farming.
Three years later—thanks to some 200 community volunteers who helped Team Gardens—children, parents, and senior citizens are all grazing on the produce from the H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Eat) Garden in Pahokee, biting into starfruit, tangerines, guavas, oranges, lemons, mulberries, and bananas. The green space also provides a community service outlet for local court offenders, who help maintain the garden year round. Benches provide a place for all ages to enjoy the fragrant trees and bushes.
“To see these two well-known Michigan athletes be so hands-on, and not at all self-involved, has been amazing.” — Roger Horne
“To see these two well-known Michigan athletes be so hands-on, and not at all self-involved, has been amazing,” says Horne, a Cornell University graduate who attended U-M’s Summer Enrichment Program at the School of Public Health in 1993. “But most importantly, what I see is that they are in it for the long haul and really want their gardens to be sustainable.” Horne is currently helping Team Gardens secure a grant that will allow them to create educational programs around the garden.
A desire to make a long-term difference is truly evident with their latest project: The Flint Justice Gardens. Team Gardens began working toward the project in 2014, long before lead in the city’s water system became national news. The team chose Flint as its second location because former U-M football players Justice Hayes, ’15, and Thomas Rawls, ’14, wanted to help feed their hometown, which had recently seen the closure of three national grocery stores. Rawls now plays for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.
By June 2015, Team Gardens had a plot for their garden, courtesy of donor Jon Shaheen, who organized for them to lease the half-acre lot for $1 a year. Fortuitously, it happened to be located adjacent to Durant-Tuuri-Mott (DTM) Elementary School. When Flint’s water contamination was confirmed last fall, the medical community quickly informed city residents that the most effective way to mitigate the effects of lead poisoning in children was to feed them leafy greens and herbs.
Thanks to Team Gardens, these elementary-aged children will soon have access to an edible, and educational, green space right next door to their school. By this summer, they hope to be harvesting kale, eggplant, squash, and tomatoes. But DTM children are not the only ones who will reap the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. A recent partnership formed with the Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation will also allow Team Gardens to help other school children in the community.
“Vincent embodies everything we stand for,” says Sharon Davenport, associate program director of nutrition at Crim, a nonprofit that is committed to improving the nation’s health through physical activity and diet. Last winter, Davenport made Smith and Sutherland an offer they could not refuse—3.5 additional acres of land they could farm behind DTM and Potter Elementary school.
“I have seen Vincent’s dedication to the area. He was here way before the water crisis, and his passion and personality are perfect for getting the children and community involved in these gardens.” — Sharon Davenport
Crim already had a school garden program in place through FoodCorps (an AmeriCorps organization) at six of Flint’s nine elementary schools. Service members in the program teach children the basics of gardening. “Being able to add two more micro-farms through Team Gardens is ideal,” says Davenport. “I have seen Vincent’s dedication to the area. He was here way before the water crisis, and his passion and personality are perfect for getting the children and community involved in these gardens.”
Flint elementary students are already benefiting from their work—open planting days have involved volunteers of all ages, from the U of M Club of Greater Flint to a local high school tennis team. But, of course, one of the biggest draws is Smith and his former Wolverine teammates, many of whom have happily sown seeds for his cause, which remains simple.
“All I want is to get kids pumped about eating healthy,” says Smith. Sutherland, however, has big plans for the gardens: “I would love to see a bee pollinator, a fence the kids can paint with pictures, and a corn maze.”
Both Smith and Sutherland, however, are looking forward to one particular moment. While clearing the land next to DTM in March, they pointed out a little boy who has regularly watched their movements as they cut down trees and pull up weeds.
Smith waved as the boy peered through his window. He quickly waved back before ducking shyly out of sight. “We can’t wait to get him outside and playing in this garden,” says Smith.
Jennifer Conlin, ’83