DETROIT – About two years ago, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation made a gutsy call to convene its 2014 food and nutrition conference in Detroit. Even then, declining economic fortunes and subsequent social disruptions dominated most of the narratives about the city’s future.
Yet, the wisdom of selecting the Motor City as the host site for this May’s Harvesting Change Food and Community Gathering was borne out last week as more than 650 food advocates from Hawaii, Alaska, and the lower 48 gathered to share knowledge and information about the “good food” movement.
“I’m a give you compost the only way a poet and emcee can give it to you,” boasted Detroit-born spoken-word artist Kidiri Sennefer, one of conference’s first speakers. He then launched into a rap that examined the politics of America’s eating habits, fast-food addictions and corporate food-systems dominance.
Sennefer’s day job is compost manger of D-Town Farm, ensuring enriched soil for the vegetables and fruits grown on the now seven-acre enterprise inside Rouge Park, Detroit’s largest public park.
The farm is a project of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a grassroots organization. Its mission is to improve the nutritional and dietary options for city residents through good food.
Conference attendees ranged from farmers and farm workers to urban gardeners, restaurant workers, policy analysts, and nutritionists.
Betti Wiggins of the Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition said her office has received great support, some through the network of relationships past conferences afforded her. She said the city is attaining its goals of bringing healthier foods to school children, particularly through its lunch program.
“I’m proud to say we’re a big fat success,” she exclaimed, noting that Detroit’s lunches now exceed USDA standards and the school system’s progress and achievements have been nationally recognized by good food advocates, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Wiggins encouraged attendees to also visit “our 77 school gardens, our two-acre farm” which contribute to the school system’s aggregate of locally grown food. She said her office has plans to add another 30 acres at a high school as a resource.
Importantly, Wiggins pointed out, the school system, at 22 percent, has exceeded its goal of drawing 20 percent of its food from farms and gardens in and around Detroit and that benchmark will continue to be raised. In addition, 16 new permanent staff positions have been added as a result, a glimpse of the potential of how sourcing locally grown and regional food can contribute to a city’s employment base.
One fiscal argument for augmenting local food networks is to reduce the tremendous costs that fuel and labor add to shipping produce from distant sites, whether in urban areas like Detroit or rural regions of the country such as Alaska.
“In some of our isolated villages in Alaska, families are having to choose between the price of heating oil and food,” reported Dave Monture, technical assistance specialist for the Intertribal Agriculture Council. He said the cost of milk in some areas has risen to $20 a gallon. But Monture said he was encouraged for the future of sustainable agriculture practices and the good food movement by the presence of youth participants in attendance scattered among and often mentored by their elders with decades of experience. Still, Monture cautioned that perfecting expertise in community development initiatives must be balanced by the holistic awareness of the impact of larger systems on food issues, energy and climate change.
Monture was born on the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario and his mother is from the Akwesasne reservation in New York. A former Director of Economic Development for the Su’naq Tribe of Kodiak, Alaska, he noted that one weather station in the state recorded 97 degrees below Fahrenheit this winter; “the old-timers in the Aleutians are seeing sea creatures and birds they’ve never seen before” as a result of unstable weather patterns.
Representatives from other Native American communities also voiced concerns about drought, the unpredictable circumstances nature sometimes presents – a wandering elk who feasted on vine-ripened crops in New Mexico -- but also about the man-made barriers to sustainable food practices: lack of access to capital and increasing costs associated with food operations.
At the heart of the drive for food security is the concept of sovereignty. “We are not sovereign if we can't feed ourselves,” tweeted one attendee, quoting Janie Simms Hipp of the Chickasaw Nation, who served as senior advisor for tribal affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was the recent director of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations. Last year she co-authored an article on food sovereignty.
“We absolutely must include time to discuss our food insecurity, resiliency of our indigenous food systems, and how to feed the most vulnerable among us in times of crisis,” Hipp wrote. “After all, it wasn’t too long ago that starvation was used to force tribes into submission.”
That sentiment was echoed by urban dwellers, intimately aware of their food insecurity and dependence on outside actors.
Malik Yakini, executive director of the network that includes rap artist/compost manager Sennefer’s employer, said DBCFSN is planning to open a Detroit food cooperative in 2015. In his view, the need for a co-op emerged from the inferior quality of foods sold in stores in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, the disrespect often shown those same neighborhood residents by store employees, and the outflow of resources that could be better directed toward attaining food security.
Yakini reminded out-of-towners that, “Detroit is in a serious crisis.” He cited “the imposition of an emergency manager on the city of Detroit by the governor of the state,” a newly established position “whose powers supersede those of [the city’s] elected officials.”
He said that DBCFSN has been educating residents and organizing resistance to this “assault on democracy. If it can happen in Detroit, it can happen wherever you live as well,” he warned.
NAM editor Khalil Abdullah attended the Harvesting Change Food and Community Gathering as a guest of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
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