This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
On any given summer Saturday, you can find young people gathering fresh produce from lush fields boasting a large variety of vegetables and hoop houses filled with fresh herbs and greens. There may be canning lessons taking place or a chef giving cooking lessons in the little house that serves as the community hub. In addition to seasonal produce, there are fresh eggs and jams for sale. As a backdrop to this activity, people of all ages sit around catching up. It’s a pastoral scene that many might not expect of bustling Detroit, but that’s exactly what you can find on a normal weekend afternoon at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End neighborhood. And now, there are more organizations, community gardens, and urban farms creating scenes like this in pockets across the city.
But despite the existence of flourishing communal spaces like Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, many Detroiters struggle to consistently access healthy, nourishing food. According to the Detroit Food Policy Council’s 2019 food metrics report, nearly four in 10 of the city’s residents experienced food insecurity before the pandemic — and many of those residents work in the food and restaurant industries. In 2020, seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the U.S. were in these industries. Since then, the need for substantive change to how the government and local communities address hunger and food insecurity has only intensified.
In response, a growing number of individuals and community-driven organizations have launched their own initiatives to aid in addressing hunger, but many of them are inherently focused on doing so during natural disasters, pandemic-related emergencies, and holidays. Although well-intentioned, this approach places most of the emphasis on immediate responses while failing to enact long-lasting fixes or to look at the ways we can use federal, state, or local resources to address systemic problems that lead to hunger and food insecurity. The ways that we, in the United States, have chosen to address these issues have often left people on the brink of survival, continuously hoping for systemic change and eventually taking the responsibility of communal care into their own hands when that change never arrives. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that now more than ever, Detroiters and the local governments and organizations that serve them need to rethink how we tackle food insecurity and inequity. We need to build a local food economy based on dignity, in which community members have a say in how they feed themselves.
As a registered dietitian, I realize the importance of food in health and well-being. I have spent more than a decade working toward food security in Detroit — for seven of those years, I acted as the executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council. To be clear, those of us creating a food-secure and food-sovereign community did not cause these problems. We inherited a food system that was flawed at best and broken at its worst. Yet the solutions most often proposed focus solely on emergency food as the fix. We have grown accustomed to seeing long lines of people waiting at food banks and pantries and an influx of social media posts asking for mutual aid and financial support. Unfortunately, these are primarily short-term fixes that cannot holistically support the health or cultural preferences of those they aim to serve. And these examples of communal care are often heavily reliant on the donations, goodwill, and contributions of nearby community members who are similarly impacted by insufficient government aid, guidance, and general institutional support.
Our community deserves a better food system. Emergency food suppliers — food banks, pantries, and community fridges — only address the immediate needs of those who are hungry. They don’t address the root causes of the issues that lead to food insecurity, like low wages, the lack of affordable housing, and limited neighborhood access to food sources — all of which are often linked to systemic racism. In fact, according to USDA data, 21.7 percent of non-Hispanic Black households and 17.2 percent of Hispanic households are food insecure, compared to 7.1 percent of white households. While it is necessary to address immediate food needs, we have to work toward changing the conditions that lead to the reliance on emergency food. A February 2022 report released by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Food Security Council uses the term “social determinants of food insecurity” to acknowledge the impact that racial and ethnic inequalities, poverty, and unemployment have on food insecurity.
All of this shows the need to move from a simple charity mindset that’s heavily dependent on holiday-time donations, volunteer support, and emergency food to one that focuses on creating long-term solutions. These can take many forms, like increasing financial support in the form of grants for sustainable urban agriculture or ensuring that community grocery stores and farmers markets get support. Additionally, the city’s restaurant workers and food entrepreneurs, especially those from marginalized groups, need tangible aid and capital to grow their businesses and establish more financial security for themselves and their employees. We need governmental bodies and representatives who are committed to making sure federal, state, and local policies and programs not only provide frameworks for equitable food access but also leave space for the initiatives we want to see in our communities to evolve. This begins with healthier school lunches, food for senior citizens, and more democratized, sustainable agriculture. We also need to ensure that working people receive living wages that allow them to meet their own needs — after all, the majority of food-insecure households are headed by someone employed. (According to a 2014 report published by Feeding America, 71 percent of households with children who sought food assistance were headed by someone who works.)
By investing in local food systems and organizations addressing root causes, we can guarantee reliable, nutritious foods that are affordable and in our control. We can realize a community in which residents are educated about healthy food choices and understand their relationship to — and benefit from — policies that promote food security, food justice, and food sovereignty. We are working toward a community where all residents, workers, and visitors are treated justly and with respect and dignity by those from whom they obtain food. Waiting for hours in a line for food that may or may not be fresh, culturally appropriate, or able to meet one’s health needs falls far short of this.
Detroit’s food-sovereignty movement — which fights for people to not only produce, distribute, and consume food within their communities, but also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution — has illustrated how everyone can grow and share their own food. The year 2020 not only awakened us but also helped catalyze the reimagination and reconstruction of government, institutions, and communities. We’ve developed additional strategies to fight food insecurity and a deeper understanding of the role that systemic issues play in creating it. We are in awe of the capacity of neighbors to respond to crises and support one another. And we are more aware of the role that policy can play in shaping our environment and providing resources. We were also reminded that the opposite of poverty is not wealth — the opposite of poverty is dignity, choice, access, and freedom.
The city has a vibrant network of people and organizations doing the work that leads to a food-sovereign Detroit. In addition to the Detroit Food Policy Council, some of the organizations working toward food security include Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Keep Growing Detroit, and the Georgia Street Community Collective. The vision we have is of a Detroit where residents not only have access to the healthy food they and their families need, but also a voice, and they reap the financial benefits from the city’s food economy. During this pandemic we saw organizations like these use philanthropic and federal resources to support the grassroots efforts of people growing their own food, learning ways to store and use produce more effectively, and supporting infrastructure to help process and deliver food where needed. We saw the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal supplemental nutrition program become more available to people without reliable transportation through the relaxation of requirements that previously excluded them. We saw the creation of alternatives to restrictive policies, like congregate feeding requirements, which make the Summer Food Service Program more accessible to children who were unable to reach a community food distribution site. Even prior to the pandemic, we saw increased support in the legislation commonly referred to as the farm bill for urban and small farms, which tend to focus on growing fresh produce.
We at the Detroit Food Policy Council and other organizations like it are working toward a community that has a healthy, vibrant, hunger-free populace with easy access to affordable fresh produce and other healthy food choices. We desire a city in which urban agriculture and composting operate sustainably and contribute to the city’s social and economic vitality. We want all residents, workers, and visitors to be treated respectfully and equitably by those from whom they obtain and to whom they provide food. But these concepts aren’t merely hopes and aspirations, they’re the core of some of the city’s most exciting organizations, whose work goes beyond food access and seeks to tackle systemic racism and social inequities while working to motivate more Detroiters to be leaders in the food-sovereignty movement.
And while residents await the more permanent governmental and institutional support they deserve — such as that seen during the pandemic — residents can still join the movement. In addition to supporting emergency food efforts, people at home can look for an extra dollar to donate or spare an hour to volunteer with nonprofits focused on moving the needle long-term. City residents can support food businesses, especially those run by people of color, in the present and the future. Additionally, they can buy from growers in the city, grow their own food, and connect with organizations advocating for policies that promote equity, sustainability, and healthy food access.
Though many people are still just hoping to survive both the pandemic and the inadequacies of the city’s food systems, many Detroiters are finally catching glimpses of a thriving community like the one at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm — one that takes their sincerest wishes and transforms them into a flourishing reality.
Winona Bynum is a registered dietitian and the executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council.
Reporting for this story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Equity Action Lab - Race and Justice Reporting Initiative, a program of The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.