Planting Vision Shea Howell

Thinking for Oursleves
Planting Vision
Shea Howell

shea25The fifth annual Food Policy Summit in Detroit offered a clear vision of what equitable, restorative development looks like. Over a hundred urban gardeners, local farmers and food enthusiasts gathered to talk about the accomplishments and challenges facing urban agriculture.

This year the gathering was infused with a new consciousness about the importance of local, city based food systems in creating a just future. That consciousness was supported by the recent report from the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative.

The study documented the growing economic impact of the local food system. It reported: “The city’s food system including supply from local farms and market gardens, processing, distribution and market demand currently produces $3.6 billion in revenue and directly employs more than 36,000 people.’

This makes our local food system the third largest employment sector in Detroit. With a 30% increase, a real possibility over the next few years, it would become number two, behind government. This growth would add 95,000 jobs and about $2.7 billion in earnings in the tri-county region of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland. In Detroit, this could add 52,000 additional jobs and $1.3 billion in earnings, according to Meredith Freeman, a consultant with the Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative.

Local food systems are people intensive. Growing food, processing, cooking, sharing, marketing, distributing, composting and recycling bring together a vast array of activities. Thoughtfully developing this system in ways that promote the health of our communities and the development of our people is the core mission of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

Growing the food system raises important questions for us to consider. Drawing on the report, experience, national expertise and relationships built over decades, Detroiters talked about rebuilding, redefining and reclaiming the city. They talked about engaging children and elders and sharing wisdom and work in the production of healthy food. They talked about learning how to listen to one another and how to make decisions drawing on local knowledge of past and place. From gardens to sweet potato pies, they explored the ways people are currently working together to create healthy communities.

The talk and tenor of the gathering offered a very different vision of what the future of our city could be than what we hear from those who talk of blight. The vision of Detroit Urban Gardeners is rooted in local production and consumption based firmly on ideas of food justice and food sovereignty. The values enacted in policies and practices hold the promise of a new kind of city that embodies caring for one another and the earth.

These ideas have grown out of the practice of urban agriculture that has placed Detroit in the forefront of this international movement.

No one at the summit thinks that the future we want will be easy to create. Dr. Kami Pothuchuki of Wayne State University spoke of some of the challenges we face. She noted that we have to talk openly about equitable development.  We have to ask who benefits by what we do and also who is harmed. She pointed out that while we have seen the opening of Whole Foods and Meijers in the city, we have lost the only two African American owned full service grocery stores. Unless we become more thoughtful about our policy development, this trend will continue.

Malik Yakini of D-Town Farms challenged the group to do the new thinking necessary to develop our communities. “We have to think outside the box and challenge ideas like individual land ownership created by a white supremacist system.”

Almost everyone at the gathering raised the critical questions of access to the lands held in public trust by the city. It is time for us to create policies and practices that smoothly and easily move this land into community-based production.

We have seen thousands of acres shift from the public domain into private hands. It is time we stop giving away public land to enrich a few individual families and start using this land to redefine, restore, and reclaim our communities.