Politics You Can Eat

In Detroit, improving residents’ access to fresh, healthy foods is rooted in the struggle for social justice

Visit with almost any of the heavy hitters of Detroit’s urban agriculture scene, and they’re more than willing to set you straight on some of the typical narratives about food issues in the city.

No, Detroit is not a “food desert”; in fact, use the term and expect a polite, but firm, reprimand.

Nor is urban farming a new movement in Detroit, started recently by young, idealistic, mostly white newcomers who’ve been drawn to the city in the past decade. Looking solely at the numbers, the majority of Detroit’s farmers and gardeners — like its residents — are African-American. And many are longtime Detroiters whose tenure gardening predates the current round of white migration by a few decades.

Don’t be surprised either if, in the course of discussing pest management and composting, the conversation veers toward power and politics. I ask Malik Yakini, head of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, if he sees himself more as a community organizer who found his way into agriculture, or —

He cuts me off.

Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

“The first one,” Yakini interjects, smiling, not needing a second option. “Being a food activist started for me in 1999, but I’ve been an activist since at least 1969. For many of us, food is the vehicle we’re using to do the larger work, and that larger work is to create a just and equitable society.”

Yakini’s analysis of Detroit’s food challenges is unapologetic: On a fundamental level, he says, Detroiters lack access to fresh, healthy food because systems like racism and capitalism create inequality. It’s big picture — and a little edgy. But Yakini’s warm, intellectual tone makes his brand of anti-capitalism seem approachable, even obvious.

Of course, there’s plenty in Detroit’s history and present to back up his critique. To paint the story in broad strokes, as people and wealth left the city for the suburbs, Detroiters who stayed in the city — by choice or by necessity — had fewer options for employment, entrepreneurship, and ultimately fresh food. In fact, the deep depopulation of the city coincided with the gradual closure of every full-service, chain grocery store by 2007 (though many smaller, independent grocers remained).

The consequence was that many Detroiters had to rely on convenience stores, dollar stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. One study found 80 percent of Detroiters use these kinds of outlets to meet their food needs. And the most recent survey from the Detroit Food Policy Council found that 94 percent of respondents worry about having access to healthy food.

Keep Growing Detroit’s greenhouse in downtown Detroit.

Given the diagnosis of the problems, Yakini’s solutions are also systems-oriented. He describes one of the group’s major efforts, a 7-acre farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park, not just as a garden, but a hub of a whole micro economy. Here, the group grows more than 30 different fruits and vegetables, which they sell directly to residents in the surrounding neighborhood at a weekly on-site market. The farm also sells its produce to local restaurants, employs five part-time workers, and hosts paid internships that provide job training for those exploring careers in farming.

“Food is the first economy of any society,” Yakini says. “Not only does everybody have to eat every day, usually there is some economic exchange that takes place. And regardless of how impoverished people are, they’re going to find a way to get food. So capturing even a percentage of that money that is spent on food and circulating it within our own community becomes a very powerful tool for creating community wealth.”

Right now, the estimated “leakage” in Detroit’s food economy — the amount that city residents spend on groceries and meals out in the surrounding suburbs — tops $175 million annually. But community groups are working on a variety of fronts to stop the bleeding.

From a garden site flanked by downtown skyscrapers, Keep Growing Detroit is pushing a vision that leaves little doubt that food issues are really about power. Their goal: “food sovereignty,” which the nonprofit defines as a future where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters aren’t just purchased within the city — but grown here.

Even Keep Growing Detroit’s Ashley Atkinson describes it as an “audacious” goal — though one she insists is far from utopian. “A third of the city is vacant, and we have this really rich agricultural history in the city,” she says. “So we have the two main ingredients to be able to pull it off. Research has shown that on less than 5,000 acres, we could grow 70 percent of the vegetables that Detroiters need and over 40 percent of the fruit. That’s just 25 percent of the city’s existing vacant land.”

To reach that goal, Keep Growing Detroit is working with residents and other community groups to provide the city’s 1,500 urban farms and markets with the resources they need most. For example, one of the group’s early and still-flagship initiatives, the Garden Resource Program, formed after the disbanding of the city-run Farm-A-Lot program — which, for three decades, provided seeds and seedlings to Detroiters who were helping maintain their neighborhoods by farming vacant lots.

Volunteers pitch in at D-Town Farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park.

Today, Keep Growing Detroit’s revival of that program grows and distributes nearly half a million transplants and supplies seeds to its member farms and gardeners every year. In addition, they host educational workshops on everything from managing pests to building irrigation systems, and offer free tool checkout at sites across the city. They even employ Detroit high school students who have an interest in urban gardening.

The Garden Resource Program is also helping gardeners make the leap into entrepreneurship. The nonprofit operates as a “food aggregator,” which allows small growers to combine their product in larger quantities and sell wholesale or at farmers markets under the “Grown in Detroit” label. One hundred percent of sales go back to the growers, and unsold produce is donated to local pantries.

Detroit food activist Devita Davison, head of FoodLab Detroit, sees this kind of entrepreneurship as one of the next steps for growing the grass-roots food economy — and the community power it creates. “Growing up in Detroit in the ’70s, I know what it looks like to have a Main Street that’s full of businesses owned by people who look like you,” she says. “If folks are going to change the dynamics of their neighborhoods so they have access to healthy, fresh, affordable food — the root of that is ownership.”

At FoodLab Detroit, Davison and others focus on helping people navigate the complex regulations that govern food-based businesses like food trucks, restaurants, small catering businesses, or niche product companies. In just six years, the group has already helped more than 200 area food entrepreneurs start businesses. The vast majority are owned by women and people of color.

But even as a champion for this small food economy, Davison is cautious about saying these kinds of grass-roots models are a solution to all of Detroiters’ food challenges.

“I love to have more audacious goals, but I’m a realist as well,” she says. “I am not at all going to think that everybody in the city of Detroit is going to be able to afford to shop at a hyperlocal grocery store. And Malik and Ashley will tell you there is often tension between farmers who want to make a living in agriculture [and customers], when the price point is not affordable for some Detroiters. So there’s a role for more traditional grocery stores — just by the sheer economics of it. You are able to leverage your buying power, therefore you can lower the prices.”

There are signs that more traditional grocery stores are reemerging as a relevant part of the food landscape, though in ways that contrast with the chain-based model dominant in the rest of the country. Despite its “food desert” reputation, Detroit has approximately 80 smaller, full-service grocery stores, many that have been open for decades. And all but a handful are independently owned by entrepreneurs from the region’s Chaldean community.

In fact, the Detroit Food Policy Council and others are now engaging with local grocers to strengthen these stores, including assisting them with stocking the kinds of products that serve — and sell well with — their largely African-American customers. (Detroit does not currently have an African-American owned grocery store.)

Chain grocers have started to return to the city as well: Meijer has opened two stores in Detroit in the past five years, and the Whole Foods in Midtown is now one of the company’s most profitable stores.

Even Yakini is expecting he’ll soon be in the grocery store business — though in a way that jibes with his politics. These days, he spends much of his time at the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network consumed by the group’s ambitious new project: opening a 7,500-square-foot cooperatively owned grocery store in the city’s North End.

He’s aware that putting a food co-op in a mostly African-American, low- and moderate-income neighborhood cuts against the grain, given that most co-ops are located in college towns and more affluent communities. But he believes they can make it work — and perhaps create a model that can be replicated elsewhere in the country.

“We’re building this parallel system that demonstrates different human relationships and a relationship of humans to the earth,” Yakini says. “So our hope is that we build a critical mass of people who see their relationship to society in a different way. It’s important that we make this successful. We’re very conscious we’re forging new territory.”