Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reimagining Food, Remaining Community -- Detroit Style


Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University

The WMU Center for the Humanities sponsored a talk by Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor and chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. She spoke to a group of 150 recently about the urban agriculture movement in Detroit and how ideas about community are created through the practice of urban agriculture and local food systems.

Pothukuchi pointed out that big ideas such as food justice, sustainability and sovereignty matter because they inspire us and inform work on the ground. However, groups translate these ideas differently within their varied contexts and draw on a repertoire of strategies familiar to their communities. Thus, community is both an outcome of and a resource for rebuilding food systems that are better than today’s industrial system.

Notions of community are especially challenged in Detroit given its recent history of abandonment. Population estimates from 2014 count 680,000 and show a dramatic decline from nearly 2 million during the city’s heyday in the 1950s. The city’s Land Bank has more than 90,000 properties or  roughly 30 percent of the city’s properties that have come into its ownership due to tax foreclosure. Four out of five the city’s residents are African-American and 36 percent of the people live in poverty. Three out of ten households are food insecure, according to definition used by the US Department of Agriculture. One in three adults is obese and according to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, one of five children and youth ages 9 to 18 are obese. The city restructured $18 billion of debt as it came out of emergency management in 2014.

It would seem a hopeless venture even to think of building community in such a seemingly devastated place and yet since 1997 a groundswell of neighbors and friends has been steadily coming together to grow gardens on vacant lots near their homes. In so doing, theyimagine a new future for the city. One by one people have planted over 1,500 community, school and backyard gardens. Some are even growing food for the city's 10 community markets in a cooperative that reaped $80,000 in revenues last year.

As major grocery stores left the city, gardens are an increasingly important resource in providing fresh fruits and vegetables even though they don’t provide all the population’s needs. Over the past couple years, however, Meijers and Whole Foods opened stores in Detroit. Together with community markets and farm stands in many neighborhoods, several corner stores have also added a fruit and vegetable section to their business. Food, in other words, has become a key ingredient in engendering a new spirit of community in Detroit.

The Detroit Food Policy Council formed in 2009 following the adoption by Detroit’s City Council of the City of Detroit Food Security Plan and spearheaded by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, to address problems related to food access in the city. This networking body comprises of representatives from the food system, youth and government all committed to nurturing the development and maintenance of a sustainable, localized food system so that all residents may be hunger-free, healthy and benefit economically from the local food system. The values of justice, respect, integrity, inclusion and transparency guide its work.

Although some city leaders are ambivalent about urban agriculture, grassroots people keep moving forward. Part of the problem is a common perception is that development is the “highest and best use” of urban land. Another obstacle is the belief that agriculture is antithetical to development and that urban farmers want to take over all vacant land. In fact, urban agriculture advocates led by Keep Growing Detroit take pains to emphasize that 5,000 acres—or about one-third of the parcels now in land bank control—are all that are needed to create a food-sovereign Detroit, as they define it: a city that grows most of the fruits and vegetables that are consumed by its residents.

“Instead of this contest of development versus agriculture that has emerged in some corners, let’s reimagine urban neighborhoods that are better, more vibrant because they have a community garden or a small farm,” said Pothukuchi. “They offer many benefits such as nutrition, physical activity, safety, sociability, and even higher property values, and the gardens can take different forms depending on if the neighborhood is a dense, tightly woven one or if it has significant amount of vacant land in it.”

Urban agriculture is providing much more than food, continued Pothukuchi. It is opening the way for “food justice” where African Americans and ethnic minority groups are growing healthy, nutritious food for their community and cultivating leadership in the food system. Such a system offers an alternative vision to the industrial food system, which fails to treat people of color with respect and instead extracts resources from their communities.

“The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network—or DBCFSN—calls on fellow African-American members to take on leadership roles in food system work and invites white people and others with anti-racist commitments to join as allies,” said Pothukuchi.

Meanwhile, farms like D-Town, located on seven acres in Rouge Park, include programs in youth leadership and education, a farm stand, and cooperative buying. DBCFSN also is developing a grocery co-operative—the People’s Food Co-op. A stalwart presence in its Eastside neighborhood, Earthworks Urban Farm—the city’s only certified organic farm—supplies the neighborhood through its farm stand and through incorporation of meals served by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. It has a nearly 4,000 sq. ft. passive solar greenhouse across the street from the Soup Kitchen.

In addition to her professorial role, Pothukuchi is founding director of SEED Wayne, a campus-community collaborative dedicated to building sustainable food systems at Wayne State and in Detroit by nurturing student leadership.

The students of SEED Wayne plant three gardens on campus and sometimes sell their harvests at the Wayne State Wednesday Farmers Market, which is located on Cass Avenue, WSU’s main drag, from June to October and features 12-14 growers each week. The market generates between $200,000 and $250,000 in sales each year. It also offers up to $20 of matching Double Up Food Bucks each market day, to shoppers who use their SNAP benefits at the market. And, in exchange for $5, students get $10 in vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables. Chefs provide cooking demonstrations and healthy eating ideas, and youth entertainers provide a welcome break for shoppers and passersby.

SEED Wayne sponsors outreach programs and partnerships with local institutions to engage people in various conversations about food, health, nutrition and community. It even trains students to offer structured nutrition and healthy eating workshops and healthy food demos.

“SEED Wayne is shaped and maintained by students,” said Pothukuchi. “It has a flat hierarchy and word of mouth is its best recruiting tool. People collaborate in different ways through interdisciplinary opportunities, academic and non-academic venues, storytelling and more formal data collection. Also, all participants learn to take time to reflect on what they’re doing as well as to analyze the outcomes of their work and develop better strategies.”

SEED Wayne tries to be mindful of what it is doing and at one point even turned down the opportunity to renew a significant grant because it didn’t match its mission and purpose. However, mindful also of the need to get off the grant treadmill, it has established an endowment to support SEED Wayne students into the future.

SEED Wayne approaches its activities from a definition of sustainability that commonly involves integrating the social, economic and environmental sectors. To this, they have added a fourth, democratic engagement. Thus, the four essential “Es” guide their work in developing food systems that are:

·      Ecologically regenerative
·      Economically vibrant
·      Socially equitable
·      Engaging of community members in a democratic process

“SEED Wayne is helping forge connections to the national and the local food movements,” said Pothukuchi. “It is a contextualization of big ideas about food that is helping us build a community here on Wayne State’s campus and to enact a new vision of a food system that helps community to take root.”



“Reimagining Community” is the theme for this year's Humanities Center speaker series, which is designed to help people reflect on a global culture of war, social injustice, environmental calamity and the nation's stark racial and political divisions, and then to reimagine the idea of community by putting an emphasis on healthcare, racial and gender equity, feeding the hungry and fostering community.

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