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Green City Diaries: Good food, the new frontier

Tawnya Clark, owner of the Batata Shop
Tawnya Clark, owner of the Batata Shop

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In his 2008 bestseller In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan makes a number of salient points about what we eat. For one, he reminds us that food is, in fact, about much more than eating. It's also "about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity."

Pollan goes on, memorably, to define food by contrasting it with the "edible food-like substances" (Twinkie, anyone?) that constitute the contemporary Western diet: "lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything -- except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains...I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it -- in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone -- is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term." But, he continues, "We are entering a postindustrial era of food; for the first time in a generation it is possible to leave behind the Western diet without having to leave behind civilization."

For this month's diary entry, we're considering how these various truths play out in Detroit, where gardeners, farmers, activists and socially conscious entrepreneurs battle daily against the alluring ease and convenience of fast food and liquor store fare. According to the comprehensive City of Detroit Policy on Food Security, prepared by the Detroit Food Policy Council (that's essential reading if you're interested in this subject), "In the city of Detroit, the most accessible food-related establishments are party stores, dollar stores, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Although most neighborhoods may have a grocery store within a 'reasonable' distance, the quality and selection of food items is exceedingly lacking."

The policy, officially adopted by City Council in 2009, goes on to elaborate how this problem is exacerbated by lack of access to transportation, and how it results in malnutrition and chronic health conditions among the population. There is further discussion of the troubling lack of black control over the food system in a majority black city, as well as a vigorous defense of urban agriculture, an old tradition here, as a vital component of the quest for food security.

The Food Security policy points the way toward a future in which all residents in Detroit have access, "in close proximity, to adequate amounts of nutritious, culturally appropriate food at all times, from sources that are environmentally sound and just." An in-depth investigation into how Detroiters are working toward that goal would be a book-length subject in itself. As usual, I'll hone in on one or two developments. Readers interested in a more comprehensive look are invited to check the Fresh Food resource page we've prepared to accompany the article.

I began my inquiry, as I often do, close to home -- at the Green Garage (GG), where Green City Diaries is produced. I spoke to Noam Kimelman, whose business Fresh Corner Cafe, which operates out of the GG, is dedicated to providing access to fresh, good food in convenience stores. (Fresh Corner Cafe is one of three food-related businesses-in-residence at the GG. The others are the Batata Shop, which makes sweet potato waffles from scratch, and Foodlab, a network of almost 200 local, triple bottom line food entrepreneurs.)

The original goal of Noam's business was to "get people cooking." Motivated by memories of eating with his family every day and a belief that "everyone has a right to fresh, quality food," Fresh Corner Cafe was initially based on the distribution of fresh produce and mixed ingredients for easy meal preparation in Northwest Detroit corner stores and gas stations. (Noam estimates that there are about 800 throughout the city.)

In the first year, though, Noam came to an important realization. "So many people are so far from daily cooking," he says, "that providing raw ingredients isn't going to help." After conversations with store owners and customers came reinvention: "People were interested in health, quality, and freshness, but especially in convenience. If people are going to eat on the go," he says, "why not replace McDonald's with something healthful?" So a new iteration of Fresh Corner Cafe was born, this time focused on providing prepackaged sandwiches, salads, and fresh fruit in those same retailers.

Currently, Fresh Corner Cafe products can be found in 24 stores throughout Detroit, with a goal of establishing a presence in six more locations by the end of the year. A dozen are located in Northwest Detroit and four are on the East Side. Eight more in Midtown and Downtown provide profits to sustain the lower-income markets.

Noam is regularly in the stores providing samples and soliciting opinions about Fresh Corner products. He describes a powerful moment from a few weeks back when he was wrapping up work. A man approached him. "You're that guy who sells those sandwiches," the man said. "After eating that chicken salad sandwich last week, I feel like I've been eating wrong my entire life."

More recently, in his work with the Detroit Youth Food Brigade (which you may remember from last month), Noam has been considering critical questions of empowerment in food systems. "It's important not only to eat healthfully, but also to have control. Who's making the food, who's distributing it, who's empowered in the process, and who's empowered in developing a more just food system?"

Important questions like these are considered in a surprisingly festive setting during Food Justice Fridays at the Cass Community Commons in Midtown, a community dinner and open mic night held the first Friday of every month by the Detroit Youth Food Justice Task Force.

November's delicious vegetarian, vegan and gluten free-friendly menu includes arugula pesto lasagna, roasted winter squash, and almond-crusted salmon cakes prepared with fresh and local ingredients by the People's Kitchen Detroit. The featured recipes were made available to each of the 75-100 attendees in the form of a free 'zine waiting for us at the door.

While we eat and talk, young people and grown folks alike pass the mic, taking the opportunity to spread messages of empowerment through food production, active local citizenship, and healthy eating. (People are literally rapping about fresh vegetables!) In the back corner, there's a station for anyone who'd like to to videoblog a food-related memory. A representative of the Detroit Black Food Security Network makes a pitch for the Ujamaa Food Coop, through which members can purchase healthful foods and supplements. Kadiri Sennefer, manager of large scale composting at D-Town Farms, performs under the stage name SIRIUS near the end of the night, rapping about what he calls "bootleg food." Critiquing the prioritization of brand-name consumerism over healthful habits, his direct and catchy chorus goes, "Designer clothes, bootleg food / 99 cent menu, $100 shoes."

It's just one evening, but it crystallizes all of the issues we've been exploring and more: the significant problems of food security and empowerment in Detroit, but also the expansive personal and cultural dimensions of food, as well its ability to bring people together. (It's worth noting that November's dinner was the most racially integrated event I have ever attended in Detroit.) Perhaps most of all, it makes abundantly clear the awakened consciousness of Detroiters, who are coming together every day, in force and friendship, to promote good food, healthier choices, and equitable food policy.

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library, which is where I checked out a copy of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. You're welcome to browse our collection of sustainability-themed books and come visit us to check one out! And while we're on the subject of food, we'd also like to invite to join the Green Garage community every Friday at noon for a community lunch. Bring a lunch, learn about what's going on at the GG, and meet all kinds of people who are interested in a more sustainable future.
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