Who would have dreamed 10 years ago that food would be as political as it is today? Between genetically modified plants, rising oil costs driving prices skyward, and the glut of processed "foods," our food sources seem more insecure than ever. For most concerned families, it's a challenge to figure out what's on supermarket shelves and where it comes from. And a growing debate, driven by big-food critics such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan and even Prince Charles, rages beneath the placid surface of contemporary consumerism.
That debate is playing out in Detroit, where scores of people have mobilized in the inner city, not just to provide food to those who need it most, but to work for food education and what they commonly call "food security" — knowing that the food on your plate is affordable, fresh and healthful because you know where it came from. People seem more willing to listen to their conscience as well as their stomach.
Of course, Detroit's status as a meat-and-potatoes town isn't going anywhere soon. But a growing minority of people are hungry for fresh, affordable, "secure" food. They're likely to be vegetarian or vegan, or into raw foods. They put a premium on food that's organic, an heirloom variety, or grown locally. They're wary of oil-based agriculture and big food, often objecting even to unnecessary packaging or waste of any kind.
And the prime movers of this emerging culture are attuned to food in a political and often spiritual way. Listening to these people on the leading edge of food, some might think it all a bit far-fetched, but their point is well-taken: Our food systems are compromised, a basic human need is commodified, and we often can't be sure what we're eating anymore. And these people aren't grumbling — they're taking action, and they're excited about what's next.
You might get to thinking they're actually the pioneers of our 21st century food frontiers.
Forty-five minutes into a vegan brunch class at Detroit Evolution Laboratory, you realize this is no ordinary "cooking" class. Sitting on stools in the sun-splashed kitchen near Eastern Market, a class is watching teacher Angela Kasmala whip up a vegan brunch, while her partner Gregg Newsom assists, expounding on the kitchen philosophy and brewing tea and coffee for the class. Not only is there little cooking involved, but the class also involves spontaneous, earnest discussions about food and the environment. Though your mouth will certainly water at the food being prepared, you also might start to get that sinking feeling about leaving your computer on at home or creating several bags of trash a week.
Newsom and Kasmala are poster children for the future of sustainable food. Newsom, 38, had been a vegetarian on and off since he was 17, coming up in the punk-vegan-anarchist scene in Detroit, and Kasmala, 28, was drawn to healthful food in reaction to her "consumerist suburban upbringing" and eating disorders. Early in 2007, the attractive duo began teaching simple vegetarian classes out of the Canfield Lofts next to Motor City Brewing Works in Detroit. Encouraged by the interest, in June 2007, they opened the Detroit Evolution Laboratory space on Gratiot Avenue near Russell Street.
And, despite limited advertising, mixing food and politics, and pursuing vegetarian fare in a solid meat-and-potatoes town, hundreds of students have taken their food classes. In fact, after starting out teaching vegetarian classes, it was their students who actually steered them toward vegan food. When Kasmala offered students choices of cheeses as ingredients, she found that none of them wanted any. A few students even objected to the inclusion of cheese, and all were fine with getting rid of it. Since they've switched to teaching vegan and raw food, their enrollment has actually increased.
Two days a week, they run a popular "lunch club," allowing members to order food for pick-up and delivery. Every Thursday and Friday, they prepare an ever-changing menu that includes a raw entrée, a vegan cooked entrée, and a made-to-order salad, all from local or organic suppliers, and all free of genetically modified organisms. They consistently sell out.
What's more, they aim for sustainability. Though they prepare more than 80 meals a week and run regular food classes, the kitchen is nearly zero-waste — they only take one tall kitchen bag to the trash a week; they recycle and compost the rest. They buy all their takeout food containers from a green-safe supplier to cut down on waste. They cut down on the fuel costs (and attendant pollution) of shipping food by setting the goal of using 100 percent local produce.
If all this seems like a long way to go for some tasty food, note that Newsom and Kasmala's organic food service appeals to a growing segment of Americans who believe that, increasingly, the food we eat is making us sick.
Newsom says, "A lot of people who come in here have been in some pretty intense health situations." They educate students about food, showing them how to eat better and fresher, without the processed foods, genetically modified ingredients and sugary additives. Dealing with people suffering from conditions like diabetes, they say they've seen some "miraculous" results. Kasmala says the outcomes are often so positive that even their students' friends who once sniffed at their dietary changes start to get curious.
Newsom says, "Once you make the switch, it's not hard. Once you start doing it, things start happening. It gets easier and easier, and it does interesting things for your health, for you, and for your relationship with the community."
It's no coincidence that they keep coming back to "community," an excellent way to keep the tone political but not doctrinaire. But these two aren't shrill or frowny. They laugh when asked if the food classes aren't just an experiment in socialization, countering that what they offer could be called "sustainable lifestyle training."
As they see it, opting to eat "normally" from the agricultural-industrial complex is just as political as seeking out small providers. Kasmala points out that relying on big food "makes a political statement, because you're buying into these large companies. But when you say, 'We are not going to support that,' it makes a huge political statement. We are going back to our communities — it's the only way to be sustainable."
And speaking of building community, the two are encouraged that, over the last year, some of their students have moved closer to the studio. "Many of our students have relocated to the city," Newsom says with pride. "That's more sustainable. ... We're getting to the point where people are starting to look at all the situations around them. How can they continue to live 45 minutes from work? Can they afford the extra money to ship their fancy hair conditioner all the way from California?"
It's a tempting point. If oil does keep getting more expensive, it could be the impetus for returning to earth-friendly folkways. Newsom continues, "I think that's part of what we're seeing with urban agriculture, or craft groups like Handmade Detroit. ... We're seeing cells of activity that are going to start to connect, by choice or necessity."
Maybe that's the ultimate take-away from a class at Detroit Evolution Laboratory: seeing food not as a commodity but as a relationship with the earth, as an individual and a community, one not to be approached without a conscience. "Think about that relationship," Newsom cautions. "In which direction are your food providers going?
The growth of the soil
Sunday service has just let out at the gothic revival Trinity Episcopal Church at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Trumbull, just south of Grand River Avenue. The busy intersection has a few grand churches and a large liquor store, but behind the church, just off a children's playground, denim-clad Kathleen Devlin, 49, is getting down to work on her Spirit of Hope urban farm.
The weather has kept progress slow, and the frequent late snows have delayed deliveries of compost. But at the back of the lot, Devlin, who has created gardens in Detroit, Hamtramck and Oak Park, swings open the side door of her van. She produces a binder filled with scientific-looking sheets of soil tests. They have pollution data for the garden, which includes three lots the church owns and the fourth lot made available by a nonprofit.
"We checked the playground and that's fine, but these lots are just full of lead contamination," she says. The immediate plan involves capping off the lots with mulch so lead dust won't blow into the playground, and building raised beds of fresh soil to grow vegetables. To make sure plants don't "uptake" pollutants, Devlin says experts "recommend building up to 2-1/2 feet. But we'll do 3 feet to be safe." The soil is so compromised that any gardening can't involve tilling the earth. She says a bioremediation plan would involve using plants to draw out the pollutants with doses of compost tea — and could span 10 years or longer.
But the short-term plans for Spirit of Hope look ambitious, and include culinary and medicinal herbs, a greenhouse, and wooden raised beds for child, senior and handicapped gardeners. The farm will employ the principles of permaculture, with seven "zones" ranging from field crops to an orchard to a "wilderness" — likely a stand of Japanese knotweed where about a half dozen pheasants have been taking refuge. "They often run across the garden before sunset," Devlin says.
A Philadelphia native, Devlin has lived in Detroit on and off for the last three decades. Her lifelong obsession with food began as a child in Philly. Visiting her aunts in better neighborhoods, Devlin grew aware how much better they ate, literally tasting class differences in America. She's no stranger to preparing food either, having been a chef at Cass Cafe, the Majestic Café and Meadow Brook Hall. Though she says she made concessions preparing meat entrées in restaurants for the higher salary, she was an early vegetarian with a pronounced social conscience. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina washed over New Orleans, Devlin went to Louisiana to aid in the reconstruction. Seeing how disaster can affect a food supply left a deep impression on her.
"In New Orleans during reconstruction," she says, "food prices were three times what they were here in Detroit."
Devlin compares Detroit and New Orleans as cities hit by a disaster. "But the destruction there happened in a short time, where Detroit's calamity has been accumulating for 40 years."
"In this neighborhood, an 11-year-old is better able to buy a quart of beer than a fresh apple," she says. "Even a church soup kitchen pantry rarely has fresh produce or vegetables."
By planting her garden on one corner of a city block, she hopes to grow life-giving food in the inner city.
"I think lots of people are coming to realize that local foods are best for the environment and best for them, not just for taste but for health."
Meditations on health
A quiet calm pervades the basement café at the Detroit Zen Center. It's early in the lunch hour, and the center's staff and a few lunch club members have gathered to enjoy a vegetarian, mostly raw lunch at the dozen tables set out beneath Japanese lanterns.
Here in the basement of an old Polish wedding hall, club members may buy everything from organic vegetables to green-safe laundry and grooming products. The center has tubs of affordably priced organic rices, wheats and unbleached flours. A humming cooler is stocked with soy milks and organic butter and tofu.
But, rather than shopping, the small crowd is understandably drawn to the organic Middle Eastern buffet, with garden salad of greens, vegetables, cracked almonds and olives, and freshly ground plates of tabbouleh and hummus. For a sweet finish, a plate of sesame pistachio cookies sits nearby.
Sipping a coffee after his meal, center founder and Detroit native Hwalson Sunim (born Alexander Lundquist) is happy to talk about the foods at the café. A vegan who has been on a raw food diet for 30 years, Sunim looks younger than his 67 years. In the midst of overseeing a green redesign of the center, to be kinder to the environment and the community, he sees the café as a natural part of the center's mission. The café's mission isn't political, but one of consciousness-raising and community-building: Bringing healthful food to the neighborhood.
"The goal is 100 percent raw, because it's best for the environment and for health."
With a peaceful reserve, he explains how it all started.
"We did a raw and organic food night, and we had 125 people come through here in 24 hours. We saw there is a significant raw food population in metro Detroit. ... And we realized people were interested in organic foods, that this city needs a health food store."
Since they already had the means to provide vegan meals for their staff, the center opened its doors. "We just invited them in because we thought it wouldn't be so difficult." But only a short while later, city inspectors arrived to shut the café down, not because of the food, but because of zoning requirements: They said the center should install a motorized slide to ferry the wheelchair-bound to the basement location.
Though the center is working toward a goal of being fully licensed, even building a ramp down to the basement level, for now they are content to operate as a private "lunch club," with extremely reasonable membership fees.
And the food is simple, fresh and flavorful, grown in the area. "We have a Buddhist farmer south of Chelsea who runs a CSA [community-supported agriculture]. We've been members for the last three years."
On Saturdays, the center even sends staffers down to Eastern Market, where they operate a stall, their way of trying to introduce people to the benefits of organic and raw food, or as Sunim calls it "living food."
He describes it in terms of "Chi, or life-force. You get 60 percent of your energy from the air and water, 40 percent from the food. Well, we're in Hamtramck, so there's not much we can do about the air, but we even bring in our own water from a supplier on 14 Mile Road."
Those curious about joining the club can drop by the center, at Mitchell and Casmere in Hamtramck, noon on Saturdays. Members can even call ahead to join weekday lunches.
The café seems to be one of the center's most successful community outreach programs. Sunim says that even skeptics will have to admit that the food is healthful and good for the Chi. "Once they see the transformation, they're supportive and get involved."
Diving for deliciousness
Jean Wilson's Woodbridge home is filled with flowers on this late March day. Blossoms, likely flown in from some warmer clime, spill out of Wilson's selection of trash-picked vases, adding a hopeful note to another overcast early spring afternoon. It's with a note of pride that Wilson says all of her furniture and most of the trimmings are "curbside specials." What's more, the bunches of blooms are fresh from the Dumpster at an upscale supermarket, and they didn't cost her a penny.
Wilson, 50, a feisty, politically minded resident of Woodbridge since 1994, is what you'd call a "freegan." She's an expert in the art of sneaking behind big food's retail outlets and "Dumpster diving."
Wilson has always been keen on salvage, but she only began Dumpstering for food in earnest a few years ago. In 2004, she bought a mansion house in Woodbridge to run collectively with some artist friends. Jean says that, after the heating bills and repairs, there was no money left over for food. "You're pouring money into the house. Heat cost $1,200 a month. So I started Dumpstering. I was like, 'Oh, my God, this is so easy!'"
Her nighttime missions gleaned so much food from area Dumpsters, she began inviting neighborhood friends over every other Saturday night for what she calls "hobo kitchen," an evening of food and entertainment that ran regularly for a year and a half.
Of the food gleaned, some items are eat-it-today ripe, others are nonperishable, such as containers of almond or cashew butter. What food isn't edible can sometimes be replanted, such as potatoes, onions and other root vegetables. And what's leftover can be composted. Of some trendy food stores, Wilson says the food is good but "it's a challenge to recycle all the packing."
Though Wilson is glad about the amount of food she can gather for her friends and those who really need it, it also stings her social conscience.
"How can these companies trash-compact all this food?" she asks. "It's silly. All you've got to do is set it out back and give people a few hours to come pick it up. It'll all be gone. And they wouldn't have to have their Dumpster picked up as often."
In response to diving, some supermarkets have reacted defensively, even locking their Dumpsters.
"Detroit is a disaster zone when it comes to fresh food. Very few grocery stores carry it, and those that do are very tight about the food they intend to dispose of."
Some retailers would rather put food in a trash compactor than have a dialogue with divers.
Of local food retailers, Wilson says, "I tried talking first, but they won't work with me. So I sneak. The employees mostly don't mind, but the management doesn't approve."
Confrontations can sometimes have interesting results. When a manager actually engaged her in a discussion, Wilson pointed out how they weren't separating their glass and cardboard. The next time she returned, there was a separate Dumpster for recyclables. She says with a smile, "I may have had something to do with that."
When Wilson goes diving, she doesn't leave a mess. "I was taught to be respectful when you're in other people's trash. I actually try to leave it nicer."
The Redford native inherited a respect for trash from her mother, who grew up during the Depression. Like the children of many Depression babies, Wilson grew up in a neighborhood where houses commonly had not just vegetable gardens but fruit trees in their back yards. "We ate it and we canned it," she recalls. "It cut down on the amount of food you needed to buy. Now families have to buy all their food instead of some."
And that's not all that's changed. Wilson continues, "Now it's all prepared foods. It's gotten to the point where our bodies don't even have the enzymes to digest fresh food. When somebody says to me, 'I can't eat a salad. I get a stomachache,' I think that's sad."
Wilson is now trying to organize a nonprofit group with Spirit of Hope's Devlin called United Peace Relief — Detroit, an affiliate of an emergency response group they worked with in New Orleans.
Inspired by the Forest Arms fire, she recently paid $1,500 for a diesel bus she intends to use as an emergency soup kitchen, warming station, phone bank and infoshop on wheels. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Wilson filled the bus with recovered food, salvaged clothing and drove to the intersection of Martin Luther King and Trumbull to distribute the goods.
Handing out fresh food and clean clothing to a crowd that quickly gathers, she's beaming with pleasure, as only people living out their principles can.
Food and humanity
That busy intersection, home to Devlin's urban farm, and a stone's throw from Woodbridge, with its scores of household gardens and politically active young people, also hosts another weekly food gathering. In front of Scripps Park, near the wrought-iron entrance, the people of the radical group Food Not Bombs gather to ladle out food to the city's homeless. They've been meeting there for the past few years, although they also served food in Capitol Park downtown years ago and the week before to strikers at American Axle in Hamtramck.
Looking every bit a grown-up punk, leather jacketed Fidel Colman, 43, is here today with his wife Heather serving food to the homeless. They've been doing Food Not Bombs for years, having met each other after reading about the group in Metro Times. At times, they've worked out of First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit on Cass Avenue, hopping around town in group kitchens, lately cooking out of a friend's house in Woodbridge. They run on donated space, donated food, and a handful of benefits a year.
Trying to serve vegan fare to Detroit's protein-hungry homeless sometimes makes for interesting situations. One summer day, the nearby Pilgrim Church hosted a cookout, which drew hungry folks from all over the neighborhood. Colman laughs recalling how more than one person took a pass on veggie fare to belly up to the barbecue.
The group has long-standing connections to the nearby anarchist center, the Trumbullplex, with its collection of poets, theater types and anarkids. With a group that political behind it, you half expect Colman to stand up on a soapbox for a speech, but he warmly says his reasons aren't purely political. "It's a spiritual thing. That's a big part of it: The ritual of making food for people. It allows me to become human."
Detroit Evolution Laboratory is at the rear entrance of 1434 Gratiot Ave., No. 1, Detroit; 313-316-1411. Lunch Club Times are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Thrusdays and Fridays; menus go online at detroitevolution.com Mondays; calling ahead is strongly encouraged.
The Detroit Zen Center is at 11464 Mitchell St., Hamtramck; 313-366-7738. Members may call before 10:30 a.m. weekdays to join them for lunch.
United Peace Relief Detroit can be reached at 313-377-4303.
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