Partner Profile: Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Source: Special to Michigan News

For decades, many Detroit residents have struggled to find access to fresh, healthy foods. Grocery stores moved out the city, leaving behind neighborhoods where fresh food is miles away and transportation options are limited. And although the vast majority of Detroit residents are Black, there are few Black-owned grocery stores in the city, depleting the neighborhoods of wealth and resources. Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is helping to change that.

The community-based nonprofit, led by Executive Director Malik Yakini, works to give Detroiters food security, food justice and food sovereignty – and, in doing so, is leading the conversation about the need for racial justice and equity in the food system. 

What are some ways that the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network helps support the city and its residents? 

Detroit is a city with one of the highest percentages of the population being African American in this country, and most people are aware of the historical ways that Black people have been disempowered, marginalized and kept out of mainstream economy. And for all those historical reasons, we are focused on building power, building capability and building food sovereignty within Detroit’s Black community. We also understand that Black people don’t live in bubble, so as we make the conditions better for the Black population, everybody benefits. For example, our organization was the lead organization in creating the Detroit Food Policy Council, and while our intent was to benefit Detroit’s majority Black population, everybody in the city and who visits the city benefits from having a food policy council. That is the kind of approach we take – an approach that is unapologetically and specifically focused on uplifting Black people, but with an awareness that Black people don’t live in a bubble and by doing that we are contributing to the uplift of all of humanity. 

What are the some of the specific programs you run? 

We have D-Town, a seven-acre farm that we operate in Rouge Park, where we have trained hundreds of people over the last 15 years. We think it is important for communities to have as much control as possible over the system that provides their food. And right now, almost all Americans are dependent upon the corporate food system that provides the majority of food in the United States. The industrial style of growing food is terrible for the environment. It emits huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere through the use of petroleum-based machinery, through the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and through the use of chemical pesticides – all of those things contribute to the deterioration of the environment and contribute to toxins in ground water and then being in streams, lakes and rivers. If we continue to use those methods, clearly they’re unsustainable and we’re destroying the soil and contributing to overall warming of the planet. 

The other reason we do it is because of human health. If we are growing food closer to centers of population density, then the food is transported shorter distances. Currently in the United States, most food is transported 1,500 miles. That contributes not only to carbon in the atmosphere, but from the time it is harvested to the time it is consumed, it becomes less nutrient-dense and less able to support optimal health. We are also concerned about all of the historical factors that create inequity in American society. The average white family has something like 14 times the wealth of the average Black family. In most Black communities we see an extracted economy where other ethnic groups come into our community and own all of the important businesses and services that we need to survive. They take that money out of the community and enrich themselves in the communities in which they live, and our communities become depleted of resources. 

We are interested in creating a more circular economy where the money we spend on food benefits the community in which we’re in. We also have youth programs to teach young people how to build, maintain and raise their gardens and prepare food in healthy ways. In order to make a shift, we also have to work with their parents. We have monthly family nights where food is prepared in healthy ways – it’s food that people are used to, but it’s prepared in healthy ways. 

Your organization, with Develop Detroit, broke ground on the Detroit Food Commons, a 31,000-square-foot facility in the city’s North End neighborhood. Please tell me more about that. 

We are building a new two-story building on the corner of Woodward and Euclid, the first floor of which will be occupied by the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a co-operatively owned grocery store that currently has 1,941 member-owners. The second floor will be occupied by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, where we have a 3,000-square-foot banquet hall and four shared-used kitchens that we will be renting out to food entrepreneurs. It is currently 85% complete, and we expect construction to end in December and expect the grocery store to open in mid-February. It will resemble a full-service Kroger with a large variety of products. 

What do you value most about your partnership with U-M? 

We had a very good partnership with the SEAS (the School for Environment and Sustainability) program over the last several years, and I value their openness to partnering with community. We partnered on the Food Literacy for All course that was developed, and I want to shout out to Lilly Fink Shapiro, who was until recently the head of the U-M Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, and who was a very partner both in terms of understanding power dynamics between large institutions and grassroots organizations and trying to be a good ally. We partnered with the initiative to create a class that was open to both students enrolled at the University of Michigan, but also could be accessed through live streaming or through video recordings by community members. For many of the speakers who came into town for the Food Literacy for All course, we were able to bring them to Detroit to meet community activists and leaders who are doing work in the field. That was a very good partnership. The program also provided interns to D-Town Farm and a few other farms locally, so having those extra folks at the farm has been a tremendous help.

What advice do you have for other organizations that are interested in partnering with U-M? 

I would say to be clear about what you are trying to get out of the partnership, and to be clear that U-M is a large resource-rich university and be sure the relationship is equitable and to make sure that some of the wealth and knowledge that is present in the university is transferred to the community organization. I’d affirm the fact that knowledge does not just exist within the institution, but it exists within the community as well, and that there can be a mutual learning situation through these kinds of partnerships. 

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