A discussion of urban agriculture in Detroit wouldn’t be complete without talking to Malik Yakini, head of the nonprofit Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. An activist and educator about food justice issues who has been honored by none other than the James Beard Foundation, his group runs D-town Farm in Rouge Park. At seven acres, it’s the largest farm in the city of Detroit. The group’s efforts also encompass a youth program, a lecture series, and a cooperative buying club they aim to turn into a brick-and-mortar establishment. Yakini’s group is also the lead organization in creating Detroit Food Policy Council, which tries to push food systems policy in a positive direction in Detroit. He spoke with us on a beautiful fall morning.
Metro Times: Mention “food systems” to lay people and I think you’ll see a lot of eyes glaze over. What does that really mean?
Malik Yakni: When we say “food systems,” we think about all the processes and human beings involved in the planting, production, processing, packaging, distribution and retail sales of food, as well as post-consumption, which involves the management of food waste. Basically, when most people think about food, they think about what they’ll be having for dinner. When we talk about food systems, we’re trying to connect dots between what ends up on people’s plates and everything before and after that. Most people don’t think about that part. Our job is to raise awareness of the process that puts that food on a plate, and also who profits from it. It means asking who benefits from having our food system work the way it does. The food choices we have are political choices, so we want people to think about it in a broader sense. And our programs help create models of how a community can begin to take control of aspects of food systems and help raise consciousness.
MT: What are the consequences of having the food systems we do?
Yakini: I think we’ve seen and continue to see consequences of having a food system not functioning in the best interests of people, mostly poor health, because we have a food system driven by profit and not what’s best for individuals and communities. We have a proliferation of food in our community that’s highly processed, full of preservatives and artificial colorings, that’s not nutrient-dense, and it often contributes to health problems, such as childhood and adult obesity, diabetes and certain types of cancers. That’s one consequence.
Then there’s the fact that millions of what we call “food dollars” are leaking out of Detroit and being spent in cities surrounding Detroit. That has economic consequences, because the first economy of a society is its food economy. No matter how impoverished people are, money is going to be exchanged for food, money that is either captured and circulated within communities to create wealth and empowerment, or extracted in a colonial manner, where Detroiters are spending millions of dollars on a system that doesn’t benefit Detroiters.
Another consequence is that workers in the food system are treated unfairly and exploited. We have artificially cheap migrant workers planting and harvesting food, and they’re often subjected to dangerous conditions and other injustices. We have workers in restaurants subjected to wages that aren’t living wages, which has been in the news a lot lately, with fast food workers protesting those conditions.
Another aspect of that broken food system would be environmental consequences, because the system that produces most of our food is heavily dependent on petroleum derivatives. The extensive use of petroleum-derived fertilizers to drive this industrial model of food production means that it leaches into water and runs into streams and lakes and pollutes water, creating dead zones without aquatic life because the water has been depleted of oxygen.
The current way food is produced is not really beneficial to the majority of people, but it is beneficial to a few corporations that really control large sectors of our food systems. We live in a capitalist system where profit is the primary motive, and people’s health is secondary. That logic results in the kind of food system we have.
MT: Sounds bleak indeed. Is there any good news? Does your work produce any victories?
Yakini: We have small victories all the time at our farm. We see victories every week when we change the way African-Americans think about agriculture. There’s this kind of global phenomenon sweeping the globe: the idea that urban life is better than rural life and that farming isn’t honorable work. Among families that have traditionally farmed, the parents are not encouraging their children to farm because it’s not seen as honorable or paying well, although people depend on them for food. African-Americans have a particular problem — viewing agriculture through the lens of slavery and sharecropping and other forms of tenant farming. Those memories are often painful, and many black folks really shy away from that, viewed through the lens of exploitive systems. We’re reframing [farming] as honorable work that builds communities. And we see those little victories all the time.
We had a harvest feast at the farm this week, and we saw people beginning to connect with agriculture in a positive way. That’s a victory. Another benefit of farming is it causes us to work outside and puts us more in tune with the flow of life. One of the reasons we have so many problems in Western society is that we spend too much time inside buildings and not out in the elements, which help to ground us and be part of that universal flow along with the other animals and plants we share the planet with. We see those transformational moments all the time.
The Detroit Food Policy Council is another major victory, a model for food policy councils throughout the nation. It was started by a grassroots organization and its bylaws were created to ensure Detroiters have a strong voice within it. Other food policy councils are emulating at least aspects of it, so that is also a major victory; because of the national profile, that work is beginning to influence national discussions on having a racially just food movement. We’re proud to participate in that dialogue, as we reshape food systems, helping ensure that the idea of equity and justice is at the forefront.
I’ve been an activist all my adult life, and often meetings are more talk than results. But what I like about food is the relationship between the effort you put in and what you reap. There can be disasters like storms or frosts, but generally you see a direct relationship between the effort and the fruit borne. I may not be doing a whole lot of marching, but I am doing a lot of planting and cultivating seeds.
MT: How about the idea that urban farming is going to “save” Detroit?
Yakini: [laughs] We don’t think that planting kale is going to save Detroit. We have a myriad of challenges, and the food-related challenges fit within this larger context, but what we do think is the pride people feel when they’re beginning to grow food and exert control over food systems, that pride lights a fire inside that reignites our understanding of our own capacity to shape our lives and our communities.
Our current food system convinces people that we don’t have the capacity to shape our own lives — that that’s the province of the corporations and the government. We’ve ceded that to what we see as more powerful forces. But our work reaffirms that we can, through our own efforts, begin to provide things for ourselves. It’s our hope that this transfers to other areas of life. Maybe we can produce clothes, tools, schools for our children. It gives us a sense of our own agency, self-determination, the capability to shape our own reality.
Michael Jackman is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]