Detroit food justice advocate works to deliver healthy, equitable produce during COVID-19

Dazmonique Carr knows what it's like to be food insecure. After moving to Detroit from New Jersey to study kinesiology and sports science at Wayne State University (WSU) as an undergraduate in 2013, Carr says she often lacked access to affordable fresh produce in the city — even as she learned about its nutritional value in school.

“In the grocery stores in Midtown, [fresh produce] either wasn’t affordable or it wasn’t great quality,” Carr says, recalling having to sift through “fuzzy” fruits and sub-par vegetables while shopping for groceries at the time.

Carr wasn't alone. Across the U.S., 38% of college students still identify as food insecure, but in 2017 Carr decided to do something about it for her peers. She founded a student organization called Students Feeding Students, working to offer more nutritious meal options for her peers on campus by providing healthy salads, vegetarian pizzas, fresh popcorn and more.

“I was helping a lot of students as a student,” Carr says. “But I had my own lack of access to fresh produce.”

Later that same year, Carr decided to take her commitment to food justice a step further. She founded Deeply Rooted Produce, a local food distribution hub that grows its own produce in addition to aggregating fresh produce from local urban farms and partnering with chefs and food sovereignty organizations around the city.

Since its founding, the company has gone on to provide access to fresh, locally-grown foods for seniors and veterans in Detroit while establishing community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and mobile and subscription-based food distribution programs.

Today, Deeply Rooted Produce is working to create more equitable access to affordable, high-quality produce for Detroiters at every income level while overcoming the unprecedented challenges of operating a small business amid a global pandemic.

‘A Land of Opportunity’

After moving to Detroit in 2013, Carr says the city felt “foreign” to her as an adult, though she’d traveled here from New Jersey to visit family in her youth. Still, the city’s energy inspired her.

“Detroit was a land of opportunity,” Carr says, recalling her first impressions of the city as a student. “For me, the heart of Detroit is, unfortunately, a lot of survival. […] That drive to survive often doubles as a blessing in disguise, though. It’s a double-edged sword where a lot of people can get a lot of stuff done.”

The city's entrepreneurial spirit quickly rubbed off on her.

After enrolling in a nine-month agricultural training program at Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks Urban Farm, Carr was trained in agricultural techniques and learned urban farming skills. She also had the opportunity to grow her own produce in the organization’s community garden.

The experience offered Carr a stepping-off point to start distributing Deeply Rooted Produce’s products locally to residents in the community.

“I grew a bunch of food [in the program] and started participating in more farmers markets,” Carr says. 

After awhile, Carr began to forge relationships with local chefs after some of them began to take notice of her high-quality produce.

“Different chefs [reached out], so we started selling to different chefs,” Carr says. “Originally just kale and squashes, and different crops that didn’t require too much labor.”

After completing the training program in 2018, Carr went on to collaborate with other local urban farming initiatives like Keep Growing Detroit, a food sovereignty organization that supports urban farmers by providing networking and sales opportunities, local growing space, and agricultural education.

Since then, Deeply Rooted Produce has partnered with other local organizations, growers and chefs including Harriett “Chef Bee” Brown of Sisters on a Roll Catering, William Gardner of Rivendell Gardens, and Neighborhood Grocery, now home to the Deeply Rooted Garden at Neighborhood Grocery on the city’s east side.

Delivering Equity

Naimah Muhammad, a community family advocate and senior liaison at People’s Community Services of Metropolitan Detroit, met Carr in 2019 when the pair teamed up to care for metro Detroit's senior citizens. Muhammad worked with Deeply Rooted Produce to distribute food boxes featuring local produce, fresh eggs and honey, bread, and sometimes even fresh-cut bouquets to senior citizens once a month.

“We did deliver quite a few CSA boxes to the different seniors throughout the area of Detroit, which went into Dearborn and we also traveled sometimes into Utica,” Muhammad says. “The response was really good. They really appreciated the vegetables.”

In addition to CSA food boxes, Carr conducted food and nutrition workshops for the seniors in Muhammad’s program.

“The whole program is [centered around] education and getting the people in the neighborhood involved and engaged as much as we possibly can,” Muhammad says, adding that Carr’s knowledge and positivity were the secret ingredients behind the small company’s success.

“[Carr] is a very enthusiastic lady. She has a lot of beautiful energy,” Muhammad says. “She loves to share her wealth of knowledge, and loves to learn as well.”

Growing Through the Challenges

After continuing her education and receiving a master’s degree from WSU in sports administration with a concentration in community health in 2019, Carr found herself in another difficult position as she faced uncertainty about what to do next and where to put down roots of her own.

“I had just graduated,” Carr recalls. “I was borderline homeless, to be honest, moving back and forth and debating whether or not I wanted to move back to my parents’ house [in New Jersey].”

Although Carr did return to New Jersey briefly last winter amid the pandemic, she chose to move back to Detroit permanently with her infant son after accepting a position with FoodCorps in July.

Determined to keep Deeply Rooted Produce operating smoothly despite the unique challenges created by the pandemic, Carr launched a CSA subscription service last year to deliver locally-grown food to residents on a subscription basis through the company’s website.

Although Carr says the delivery service attracted about 30 subscribers in its first year, reaching BIPOC and low-income residents — her target demographic — proved challenging.

“We didn’t see that a lot of our subscribers represented the city of Detroit, [which is more than] 70% Black,” Carr says. “We really wanted to learn from that and wanted to make it more accessible this year. So this year we have tiered pricing for low-income, middle-income and high-income.”

Reaching residents with a higher level of need is particularly important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say exacerbated existing problems. According to a report from the Food Security Council, a 24-member council established last August to assess food access and issues in Michigan amid the pandemic, the number of residents experiencing food insecurity increased statewide from approximately 1.3 million individuals before the pandemic to around 1.9 million after. An estimated 552,400 of those affected were children. 

The report also indicates a correlation between high food insecurity rates and “pronounced racial disparities,” particularly in metro Detroit and areas in northern Michigan that are home to tribal reservations. 

Paying It Forward

Despite Carr’s efforts to continue delivering healthy food to the community amid the pandemic, Deeply Rooted Produce experienced its own financial struggles last year.

Although the small company does not employ a full-time staff, Carr says she often uses contractors and employs a small team of part-time seasonal help to assist with growing, packing boxes and other operational tasks.

“We had a little bit of difficulty paying contractors,” Carr says.

LISC Detroit Deputy Director Damon Thompson.After applying for a small business grant through Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) Detroit, Deeply Rooted Produce was awarded a $20,000 grant in December through the support of Lowe’s.

Carr says the funds helped her catch up on late payments and debts the company had fallen behind on, as well as cover operational expenses that she says can sometimes include high upfront costs.

“Access to fresh food is a vital and critical need for residents here in the city of Detroit,” says Damon Thompson, LISC Detroit deputy director. “LISC Detroit is proud to support Deeply Rooted Produce and its network of local farmers with this grant of $20,000 to continue providing vegetables and produce to the community.”  

In spite of the challenges and obstacles of the last year, Carr says the pandemic helped teach her patience under difficult circumstances, and she remains committed to her mission of food sovereignty and creating more equitable access to fresh produce for residents in Detroit.

“I’m not going to say I was grateful for the pandemic,” Carr says. “But the challenges that existed really showed me, and reminded me, who I was and what kind of ability I had and was carrying with me.”

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.

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