Illustration by Steven Shik
About 20 years ago, Malik Yakini began gardening on a small plot of land at his Detroit home to ensure he had access to fresh food. With few full-scale grocery stores in urban neighborhoods and just one national chain located in Detroit, Yakini saw the need to expand this work to community gardens and to teach young people to get their hands dirty. In 1999, he developed a food security curriculum as principal of Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered school that operated in Detroit from 1989 to 2014.
“We were trying to make thinking critically about food a part of the entire school curriculum,” said Yakini, who is now the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), a non-profit that has advocated access to healthy food in the black community for the last 14 years. He wanted students to understand that having food available is necessary for survival, and being in charge of and having a say about their own food supply — food sovereignty — is critical.
Today is no different. Yakini told Detour one of the DBCFSN’s major goals has been to get people, particularly Black people, “to think about the inequity that is in society in general but how it also plays out in the food system.” That, Yakini said, and taking individual action to bring about personal food security and sovereignty, should be a focus as the consequences of COVID-19 unfold — even as DBCFSN works toward more systemic changes to the food system.
A food security crisis during COVID-19
The DBCFSN’s efforts are a part of a large food movement in Detroit of urban farms, markets and food policy advocates, including Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and Keep Growing Detroit. On Juneteenth, the three organizations launched a crowdfunding campaign for the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, raising nearly $55,000 — after starting with a goal of $5,000 — to help Black farmers buy land in Detroit and achieve the food security through land ownership that took those organizations years to establish.
The need for food security and sovereignty has been magnified as the pandemic fueled food shortages, forced families to face food insecurity, some for the first time, and drew attention to health disparities in the Black community. African Americans have made up 40% of confirmed deaths from COVID-19 while only comprising 14% of the population in Michigan, with Detroit experiencing a concentration of those deaths. Historically, African Americans have been at disproportionate risk for pre-existing conditions that may make outcomes worse for those with COVID-19. Black, low-income Detroiters have faced additional risks for the virus, like taking public transit, living in high-pollution areas, working at service jobs with increased exposure to the public and less access to the healthcare system.
Black Detroiters’ increased vulnerability during the pandemic underscore Yakini’s belief that food security and sovereignty play a huge role in healthcare and wellness. Controlling production of locally grown food allows people to access foods that contribute to long-term health.
Developing a food security consciousness
Yakini traces his particular focus on food security and sovereignty to a conference about food security he attended in Atlanta in 2005. At the time, he said, he didn’t know the term, or that there was this larger thing called the food movement. As he started learning and connecting with national advocates in the movement, he knew — because of the depth and importance of the work and his passion for it — he needed to commit his life to the food arena, leaving his position at Nsoroma Institute to helm DBCFSN full time in 2011.
DBCFSN operates D-Town Farm, a seven-acre farm on land leased from the City of Detroit in Rouge Park, and is in the midst of raising funds to build a full-scale member-owned grocery store, The Detroit People’s Food Co-op in Detroit’s North End. The grocery store will be open to the public and housed in the Detroit Food Commons, a community development complex, another project that DBCFSN is spearheading. The co-op was scheduled to open this summer, but the coronavirus postponed their opening plans.
This spring, DBCFSN partnered with Oakland Avenue Urban Farm to create an online ordering platform for produce sales. The organization also started a seed and transplant giveaway and developed a series of short videos for people who are just beginning to garden.
Before that conference in 2005, Yakini had a consciousness about the importance of personal involvement with food but wasn’t aware of the global footprint of his work. Now he wants others to hold onto that consciousness, not just in times of crisis — but as a way of life.
How the pandemic underscored the value of local eating
“As long as you have access to water and fire, you can make a meal,” Yakini said this spring. “We expect this crisis to extend for months. There will be people without pay checks and reduced food bills [so we have to] stock up on dried greens and grains,” he said, noting that these foods are cheaper and keep well.
He also suggested sprouting, or soaking nuts, seeds, grains and beans in water until they grow shoots. “Sprouting …yield[s] a food high in nutrient density.” Eating a nutrient-rich diet keeps the body’s immune system strong.
Yakini said stocking up on greens and grains and preparation like sprouting should continue beyond the quarantine alongside long-term, sustaining efforts, like annual personal and community gardens, as well as urban farms that provide food for families and communities.
“Some of the foods we have provide comfort but aren’t nutrient-dense foods. One of the basic things we need to have is those (foods) for solid nutrition,” Yakini said. He stressed the importance of eating food grown locally, as this “gives you food where nutrients are more intact and the food hasn’t begun to deteriorate.” According to Cultivating a Healthy Food System, most Americans purchase food that has been produced more than 1,500 miles from where they live, and thus has begun to lose nutrients before it reaches the stores.
Paving the way for more local foods in Detroit
Though officials are currently focused on emergency response, the COVID-19 crisis has shined attention on some of the systemic issues that affect long-term health — and opened the door to addressing them. In addition to grassroots and personal efforts, policy changes at the city level could make gardening less burdensome for independent growers and boost access to affordable healthy food in the long run, Yakini stressed.
“We have the opportunity to do urban agricultural work in Detroit that most urban areas don’t have because there is a tremendous amount of vacant land in the city,” Yakini said. “Easing those restrictions to gain access to land would be helpful.”
Yakini said restructuring how the city charges for water usage would help growers be able to afford to cultivate the land. He noted that most of the water a farm or garden uses diverts water from the sewerage system, but the majority of a water bill is based on water draining into the sewerage system, so farmers should have to pay less. “This would be a very good time for them to give gardeners free access to water.”
Since the coronavirus crisis struck Detroit, Yakini said he’s heard from people who haven’t been interested in gardening but now want to begin. He believes this public interest and the recent efforts to help people with gardening will cause DBCFSN to increase its work assisting with personal gardens not just during the crisis, but as an ongoing part of its mission.
Yakini shared some recommendations for personal and systemic ways we can improve our relationship with food and local growing:
- Think more critically about food choices. Have a consciousness about what good foods are.
- Buy grains, beans and other dry goods. They are inexpensive and have a long shelf life
- Sprout nuts, seeds, grains and beans. Doing so makes them more nutritious.
- Plant a garden. Planting a garden will give you greater access to nutrient-dense food and help you save money.
- Make sure you plant seeds in nutrient-rich soil. Keep Growing Detroit can help with that.
- Be aware of how food plays into the development of neighborhoods. This will help you advocate for stores with better quality foods to be in urban communities.
- Ease access to large areas of land for individuals. Detroit has an abundance that is not being used.
- Provide free water to gardeners and urban farmers. The majority of the water they pay for isn’t the majority of the water they use.
- Purchase produce from local growers. Doing so will help fuel the local economy.