Interview: Malik Yakini Is Changing the Face of the Food Landscape in Detroit
by Hannah Wallace
When he was seven-years-old, Malik Yakini, inspired by his grandfather, planted his own backyard garden in Detroit, seeding it with carrots and other vegetables. Should it come as any surprise that today, Yakini has made urban farming his vocation? The Executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), which he co-founded in 2006, he is also chair of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which advocates for a sustainable, localized food system and a food-secure Detroit.
It’s well known that Detroit has been hard hit by the economic crisis—it’s unemployment rate is a staggering 28 percent—but it also has one of the most well-developed urban agriculture scenes in the country. Over the past decade, resourceful Detroiters and organizations such as DBCFSN have been converting the city’s vacant lots and fallow land into lush farms and community gardens. According to the Greening of Detroit, there are now over 1,351 gardens in the city.
I spoke to Yakini (left), one of the leaders of Detroit’s vibrant food justice movement, about the problem with the term “food desert,” how Detroit vegans survive the winter, and what the DBCFSN is doing to change the food landscape in Detroit. “We’re really making an effort to reach beyond the foodies—to get to the common folk who are not really involved in food system reform,” says Yakini.
A2Politico: Tell me about the origins of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
Malik Yakini: It grew out of some earlier work. I was principal of an African-centered charter school in the Detroit area called Nsoroma Institute Public School Academy. In 2000 we started doing organic gardening on a serious level and developed a food security curriculum. That initial garden evolved into something we called the Shamba Organic Garden Collective, where we had parents and teachers planting gardens in their backyards and in vacant lots next to their houses.
We had a team called the groundbreakers who would go out and till peoples’ gardens for them—because that was the most labor-intensive part. We had about 20 gardens spread out over the city as part of this collective. And as the work continued to grow, we were looking for a way to expand it and involve more people. Informally, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network grew out of this work.
In February of 2006, I called together a group of 40 people who I knew were either gardeners, chefs, raw foodists—people who had some connection to food—for the purposes of starting the DBCFSN.
A2Politico: One of the main activities of the organization is to influence public policy. Is there a political leader in Detroit who has become a powerful advocate for the food justice movement and has helped push through laws that protect community gardeners and promote food security?
Malik Yakini: The one who has been most supportive has been councilwoman JoAnn Watson. And councilman Kwame Kenyatta has been supportive as well. In fact, it’s through JoAnn Watson that we were able to have the City Council approve the Food Security Policy that our organization wrote. She was able to give us the traction we needed to get the City Council to appoint members of the Detroit Food Policy Council.
A2Politico: What policy goals are the DBCFSN working on right now?
Malik Yakini: The big issue right now in Detroit is creating ordinances to regulate urban agriculture. There’s a big impediment and that’s a state law called “the Right to Farm Act.” Essentially it says no municipality has the authority to create ordinances that regulate agriculture within their jurisdiction, because of this state law that supersedes it. Just last week therewas a bill introduced to the Michigan house to exempt Detroit from the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which was passed in the early 1980s. It was passed to protect rural farmers from suburban sprawl and from complaints from people who were moving into rural areas where farming was taking place, who wanted it to be like a city. So the law was to protect the farmers, but it didn’t anticipate the urban agriculture movement we have now.
At this point, our policy work is primarily done through our involvement in the Detroit Food Policy Council. Our farm manager is a member of the Michigan Food Policy Council. So we are trying to move policy forward through our involvement in those two organizations.
A2Politico: Do you think there’s a chance the Michigan legislature will pass this bill?
Malik Yakini: It’s a question of building the proper coalition on a statewide level. We have to find a way to get enough Michigan state legislators to vote for that exemption. But that’s challenging because Michigan is a very large agricultural state. In fact, it has the greatest diversity of crops outside of California. But most of what is grown in Michigan, like every other state in the United States, is corn and soybeans. And so these corn and soy farmers are not the natural allies of the sustainable ag folks in Detroit. It’s gonna take some networking across traditional interests in order to build the kind of support politically that we’d need to get an exemption.
Flint and Grand Rapids have very large urban ag movements, too, and they’re handcuffed in the same way. So there are some natural allies out there. But in order to move this thing forward we have to have some allies in rural Michigan—the traditional farmers.
A2Politico: Does that mean that urban farmers in Detroit are technically defying the law right now?
Malik Yakini: There’s a woman on the Food Policy Council who is an employee of the City Planning Commission. She says there are some things that are illegal and some things that are unlawful. It’s illegal to have farm animals like cows in the city of Detroit—there’s a law prohibiting that. But there are other things like bees that the law doesn’t speak to specifically. So there’s no law that permits it and there’s also not a law that prohibits it. It’s not lawful but it’s not illegal. So we’re kind of caught in this grey area right now.
It’s been estimated that Detroit has about 6,000-10,000 acres that are vacant—that’s about a third of the city. So you have a lot of commercial interests beginning to look at Detroit as a place to do agriculture. Because the city doesn’t have the ability to regulate it right now, we don’t have the ability to say to these large commercial interests that we don’t feel that this scale of agriculture is appropriate for Detroit. Getting the exemption from the Right to Farm Act would allow Detroit to define what is appropriate in terms of scale and in terms of things like composting.
A2Politico: What about policy on the national level. Does the DBCFSN have any position on the farm bill?
Malik Yakini: Several of us have been involved in webinars and meetings to bring us up to speed on the farm bill. But we haven’t actively taken a position as a group.
We’re more focused on local policy. After studying the farm bill over the last several months, I have a concern about what it takes to build the type of support nationally, across various interests, to get anything passed in the farm bill. It’s much easier to build that level of consensus on a local or state-wide basis.
I think big ag will continue to get billion dollar subsidies. Some of the things that were added in the last farm bill were good: Our organization got a hoop house from the USDA as a result. But when you look at a hoop house that cost $8,000 and maybe there are 5-10 of ‘em in Detroit, that’s $40,000 to $80,000. But then you’re looking at billions of dollars that are going to these folks who are growing corn and soybeans.
So really, if we want to have a major impact on the food system in the United States, the paradigm has to be shifted. So that sustainable agriculture is incentivized and this unsustainable model of industrial farming is dis-incentivized. The best way to do that is through money. Of course, that is a big fight because the food lobby is one of the most powerful lobbies that exists. And I really haven’t heard answer of how you build the level of power, how you galvanize that level of support, on a national level.
A2Politico: The DBCFSN has a “What’s for Dinner?” lecture series. What speakers have you had and what are they about?
Malik Yakini: This year we had four lectures. The first was called “Is my garden legal?” by Kathryn Underwood, the woman who is on the Detroit Food Policy Council. She spoke about the laws or lack of laws regulating agriculture in Detroit. The second lecture was a guy named Kilindi Iyi and he’s a mycologist. His was on adding mushrooms to your garden and the technologies of growing mushrooms. The third lecture was the board president of our organization, Ife Kilimanjaro, and it dealt with the global food shortage and how that is a man-made phenomenon how it has been manipulated through these multinational companies that are are controlling much of the food supply. The final lecture was one I did on the impact of global warming on agriculture.
So this lecture series—as well as some of the other things we do—is geared towards raising public consciousness. Because we realize that it’s not just a question of greater access to food. But people have to have knowledge about the food, and have to have some understanding about why sustainable growing is better than the industrial food system that provides most of the food. They have to have some understanding about food culture. Because much of our traditional food culture has been lost over the past generation, due to the rush towards convenience in the post World War II period, and then the fast food proliferation which occurred in Detroit and other places throughout the country. Our families today rarely sit down and eat a meal that’s prepared from scratch. So there’s a lot of education that has to go on in order to support the growing of fresh produce. And creating markets in which to sell it. We have to increase demand at the same time as we’re increasing access.
A2Politico: Is D-Town Farm the DBCFSN’s only garden? Or do you have others?
Malik Yakini: We just have one location. We started out initially with two acres and we currently have seven acres—so it’s a pretty large project. We’re trying to stay focused and not have various locations around the city. Frankly we don’t have the capacity to manage that. Even managing the seven acres we have now is challenging!
We consider ourselves to be a model. Rather than trying to start gardens all around the city, what we’re doing is creating a learning institution where people who are interested in doing this work can come and learn various techniques and strategies that they can take back to their neighborhoods. So we see ourselves as a catalyst.
A2Politico: So the produce that’s grown at D-Town Farm—is it sold there at a farm stand or at Eastern Market?
Malik Yakini: We sell it at Eastern Market and also at a few farmers’ markets. We also sell to a few restaurants. We’re working on a project called “Take it to the Marketplace” that will put some of our products in grocery stores. It’ll be a producers’ co-op that we’ll be part of and we’ll invite other local food entrepreneurs to be part of. But it will sold under the D-Town brand. And we’ll collectively market and promote those products, and collectively distribute those products. So that’s our next move: to have locally grown options available at stores that people normally shop at.
A2Politico: Speaking of grocery stores, you said something interesting at the Community Food Security Coalition conference in Oakland: that implicit in researcher Mari Gallagher’s definition for “food desert” is the notion that grocery stores are the only solution to food deserts. In fact, what she and others including you stress is that multiple solutions are needed—farmers’ markets, food co-ops, urban farms. But don’t Detroit residents—even those who buy their food from D-town Farm—rely on grocery stores in the winter? Even with hoop house technology, you can’t possibly grow enough produce in the winter months for people to be food secure—can you?
Malik Yakini: Not at all. We don’t even grow enough in the ground in the summer to be self-sufficient. We’re producing a very small amount of the produce consumed in Detroit—probably less than 1 percent. We are at the embryonic stages. We think we have much greater capacity. But we’re nowhere near that point right now.
People are accustomed to going to grocery stores to buy food and they’re used to these large, pretty pieces of produce. Often, organic food is not as large and sometimes it has flaws. So we have to re-educate people about the aesthetics of food and the nutritional value of food, at the same time as we educate people about the value of eating whole foods.
We’re not self-sufficient even in the summer time—less so in the winter. We are producing food in the winter using hoop house technology, but of course you can only grow limited crops in the winter using hoop houses unless you have some external heating source. People are primarily growing salad greens, collards, kale, and things like that. They clearly aren’t growing peppers, tomatoes, and squash in the winter in hoop houses.
A2Politico: Without a full-service grocery store, where do you find sustainable dairy, meat, or bread? Does Detroit have any meat CSAs?
Malik Yakini: Because I’m a vegan, I haven’t done a lot of investigation about sources for eating meat and dairy. Although that’s my personal dietary preference, that’s clearly not the dietary preference of the majority of the people in Detroit. So since the majority of people do eat meat, we need to find ways of finding high quality meat at affordable prices. I’m very ignorant about what those options are, but that’s an area I intend to educate myself about in the near future.
A2Politico: But even as a vegan, it must be a challenge to find enough healthy food in Detroit in the winter. Do the locally-run bodegas in town—the “party stores”—have any fresh produce?
Malik Yakini: Unfortunately, many of us, particularly those of us who are trying to eat organic foods, have to leave the city to find those. I’m privileged enough to have an automobile. [Note: 1/5th of all Detroit households are car-less.] I’m able to drive the couple of miles from my house to get to Ferndale, where they have food outlets that sell organic food. They do sell some local produce but of course during the winter that selection is very limited. And so although I am dedicated to eating local foods, I’m not able to do that to the extent that I’d like to during the winter time.
A2Politico: I read an article that asserted that Detroit and Cleveland have plenty of corner stores, many of which sell produce. The USDA overlooks such stores when they designate a neighborhood a food desert. (They define supermarkets as grocery stores with at least $2 million in annual sales.) But don’t these so-called “fringe stores” sell mostly processed food, liquor and cigarettes?
Malik Yakini: There are small grocery stores in Detroit. Mari Gallagher’s 2007 study said there were something like 1,075 food outlets in the city of Detroit. The vast majority, though, are convenience stores or what we call party stores. The problem is that far too many of them sell food that is of an inferior quality, sometimes at inflated prices. And the sanitary conditions in the stores often leave something to be desired. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, because there are some very good independently-owned grocery stores in Detroit. A few. So I don’t want to leave the impression that they’re all terrible. Many of them are terrible. But even the decent ones aren’t selling organic produce. And for me, eating organically is very important.
A2Politico: Your friend Malik Shabazz of the Marcus Garvey movement has been videotaping some of the blatant health violations at “party stores” such as rat feces, and is reporting them to the Department of Public Health.
Malik Yakini: He’s also finding meats that have another label placed over the expiration label. He’s finding stores that are selling alcohol to minors. He’s documenting all of these things. His organization creates the kind of pressure and public scrutiny that’s needed to close down drug houses, too. It’s part of an overall effort to create a higher quality of life in Detroit’s African American community.
A2Politico: In Oakland, you cautioned that racism is prevalent in the food movement—that some white food activists will come into an African American community and tell them what to do. Can you give an example of a white food justice organization in Detroit who is a good ally of the DBCFSN, who works with you in a collaborative way?
Malik Yakini: The main ally we have is Earthworks Urban Farm. The manger there is Patrick Crouch. We do quite a few things together including participating in the “Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System” initiative. They are probably our best predominantly white allies.
A2Politico: One of the goals of the DBCFSN is to promote healthy eating habits amongst Detroit’s youth. Any tips on how to do this? Kids can be tough critics.
Malik Yakini: When children are involved in growing food, they feel a sense of ownership. Like, “I grew that carrot, I planted those seeds.” That’s a big incentive right there. But also just bringing in fresh greens and having the kids taste them. Typically they enjoy it—they like it.
We have a youth program called Food Warriors youth development program that functions at Nsoroma. Also, there is a food security curriculum that’s woven into the fabric of the school. Every teacher has to have one lesson per week that has a food security tie-in. We look at food security in a very broad sense, not just in terms of providing access to food but we look at all aspects of the food system. With some of the younger children, rather than inundate them with a lot of theory, their food security lessons are more hands on. Preparing things, tasting them. Exposing them to foods that they don’t normally eat.
Healthy eating is part of the culture at the school—and it has been for some time. Gum, candy, and soda pop are not allowed in the building at all—either by students, staff, or parents. That’s been a long-standing policy. There’s a catering company that provides lunch every day. So we have whole grains—no white rice is served—it’s always brown rice. There’s no red meat served. And so we’ve created a cultural environment that is supportive of healthy eating. So the Food Warriors are building on a culture that already exists in the school.
A2Politico: What about public schools in Detroit? Are there people putting pressure on them to improve their food?
Malik Yakini: The food service director of Detroit Public Schools, Betti Wiggins, is very progressive. She was recently elected to the Detroit Food Policy Council and she’s very active in the food movement. She has reached out to local growers. Of course she’s working for a bureaucracy that slows down what she’d like to do. But there couldn’t be a better person in place pushing for this to happen.
She is involved in the farm-to-school movement and has piloted that in several schools in Detroit, and has encouraged several schools to start gardens. So she is a very strong ally in this movement.
Malik Yakini: That is the inevitable question. All interviews lead to that question.
I find it to be problematic for several reasons. The first reason is because the city is 77% African American (according to the latest Census Data), and the key players in the Hantz project are white men. That’s problematic.
Secondly, they are not committed to organic agriculture. They propose some type of mixture of the traditional industrial farming model and sustainable techniques.
Thirdly—and most alarmingly—they don’t have any sense of using urban agriculture to empower communities. They are driven by the profit motive. The current urban ag movement is clearly steeped within the social justice movement and clearly is trying to empower people, communities, and community organizations. And none of that is on the radar of the Hantz project. So that is very troubling.
Although Mr. Hantz is proposing this very large farm, what a lot of people don’t know is that he’s proposing that only ten percent of what he grows is produce. The rest is Christmas trees! Most people think he’s going to have thousands of acres of tomatoes and peppers and lettuce, but that’s not the case.
Mr. Hantz has also said that really what he’s trying to do is create scarcity, thereby driving up the value of the land. At a public forum, someone said to him, “Well that sounds like a land grab.” And he said, “Yes, it is a land grab.” That’s another problem. There are major questions around use and ownership of land. And how land serves the common good as opposed as trying to serve the interests of wealthy individuals who are trying to make a profit.
A2Politico: Has he reached out to the black community in Detroit in any way?
Malik Yakini: After much criticism, there has been some reaching out to community members. But it seems to be an afterthought, after he received so much criticism. He’s also made overtures to me. I’ve been involved in a couple discussions about trying to sit down with him to understand more fully what he wants to do.
I have a good relationship with Mike Score, who is the president of Hantz Farms. Mike is the person who is leading the farm effort right now. He’s a legitimate farmer and an honorable human being with a very high level integrity. He and I have talked about trying to set up a meeting with Mr. Hantz and some of the key people in the urban ag movement. But Hantz has been resistant to meeting with a group of people.
A2Politico: You were awarded a two-year fellowship with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Do you mind my asking how you’re spending the $35,000 stipend? What project or projects are you working on?
Malik Yakini: I proposed a project called Be Black & Green. What I’m doing is video documentation of black farmers, gardeners and food activists throughout the country. I just posted an interview with David Hilliard (of the Black Panthers) that I shot in Oakland, and I have five others in the can that I’ll be posting soon. What I’m doing is creating a network of black farmers, gardeners and food activists so they can know each other. I’m also raising the profile of black farmers, gardeners, and food activists in the larger food movement.
We want to assert that black people have always been involved in agriculture in this country and we’ve always been involved in sustainable agriculture. And that we have as much claim to this movement as anybody else does. And so by telling these stories and really allowing others to tell their own stories, and raising the profile of of black people doing this work, I hope to help people understand the role that we play in this movement historically.
A2Politico: It’s out of the bag: kale is your favorite food. What’s your preferred way of preparing it?
Malik Yakini: Raw kale salad. I’m just addicted to it. I serve it with a special dressing: toasted sesame seed oil, nutritional yeast, cayenne pepper—those are three of the main ingredients. I can’t tell you the rest of the ingredients, but I can say that people really seem to like it.
A2Politico: What’s your definition of food justice?
Malik Yakini: Food justice is people being treated justly by all of the venues that they interact with to obtain food. The other part of food justice has to do with economic justice: that when people spend money on food, they need to derive some benefits from the money that they spend beside just trading food for money.
The money that they spend on food needs to enrich their community. In too many cases, we have wealth extraction strategies—where people spend money in their communities on food and money is taken out of their communities and creates jobs and wealth in other communities. So part of food justice is circulating the money that people spend on food in their community for their own benefit. It also has to do with simple things like people being spoken to respectfully at the places that they go to purchase food, with their human dignity being upheld. Having equal access to good food sources—that’s a big part of food justice. So I would say, the access piece is key, upholding peoples‘ dignity is key, and the economic justice part of it is key.
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