For the first three years Babar Qadri worked as a physician assistant at the HUDA Clinic in Detroit, he says he was "just following everything I learned in medical school."
"You see a patient with high blood pressure and you give them high blood pressure medication," says Qadri, known as "Q," who is now attending physician at HUDA. "You tell them the usual thing that every doctor knows: don't eat this, don't eat that, increase your fruits, increase your vegetables, drink more water, blah blah blah. Every patient heard that 'til they're blue in the face and that's a story that hasn't changed."
But Qadri's approach changed dramatically when he asked a patient he'd been seeing for three years what she was doing to help her high blood pressure.
Babar Qadri, "Q"
"The only answer she could give me was, 'I'm taking my meds,' " he says. "And then I stepped back for a second and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, 'If that's the only answer she knows to this question, then we as her providers have failed her.'"
That revelation led Qadri to create an urban garden at HUDA. The clinic, which offers free health care for uninsured and underinsured patients, now supplies free produce to help patients address their health conditions through their diets. But Qadri did a lot of learning before he hatched that idea. In 2013 he took a one-year hiatus from the clinic to study holistic medicine in London.
When Qadri returned to HUDA the following year as the clinic's educational director, he added three new questions for the clinic's practitioners to start asking their patients: What are you doing about your condition? Has this condition ever happened to you before? And how are you using your diet to resolve the condition? He and the other practitioners began educating their patients about how eating specific foods could help resolve specific disease states.
"Then one of the patients came up to me and said, 'Yeah, Q, that's all great and dandy. But you show me around here where I can get eggplant or squash or ... peppers, and I'll do it.' " Qadri says. "And when we did more research we found out the area around the HUDA Clinic is a food desert. There's nowhere that you can get food. So we started growing our own."
There was a learning curve to that as well. Qadri admits he'd never grown anything before in his life. He researched which plants were best for treating disease, and then narrowed that list down to three key plants that were well-suited to Detroit's climate: tomatoes, peppers, and basil.
"Then I just started learning, reading, talking to other people," Qadri says. "There's a slew of urban gardeners in Detroit that have much more experience, knowledge, and wisdom than I do. So I literally picked all their brains."
One of the very first urban gardens Qadri partnered with was nearby Buckets of Rain. Buckets of Rain founder Chris Skellenger not only taught Qadri how to garden but also gave him starter plants for the HUDA garden.
"Without BOR, I would have nothing," Qadri says. "... We're like their offspring, no pun intended."
The HUDA garden has grown significantly since those early days. Its produce is now available to all of HUDA's 1,500 patients, and it also sends produce to multiple local soup kitchens. The garden has 500 registered volunteers, with about 20-30 showing up regularly on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Qadri has also built relationships with numerous other agriculture-related organizations including Keep Growing Detroit, the Greening of Detroit, and Focus: HOPE.
"The clinic itself is an amazing entity, but the garden is really teaching more people in medicine and influencing the neighborhood to give back and be part of the community," says Tony Johnson, Buckets of Rain's operations manager. "[Qadri] is really introducing a whole new idea of medicine there in the Highland Park-Detroit neighborhood that really needs it."
Shabbir Chandoo is one of the many HUDA patients who've benefited from the garden. The Dearborn resident has high blood pressure. He says he's "learned a lot" from Qadri and other HUDA staff and tries to follow their advice on diet. He enjoys collecting tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden when he stops by for a doctor's appointment.
"It's helped me a lot," Chandoo says. " ... I appreciate the HUDA Clinic for all the hard work they are doing, from the volunteers to the doctors."
Qadri proudly asserts that the clinic has gotten 20% to 30% of its patients off medications since the garden started. He loves to see the notable changes in his patients' health and happiness as a result of changing their diets. But he doesn't hesitate when asked about the root of his motivation for implementing a new approach to medicine at HUDA.
"This is what I'm supposed to do," he says. "As a Muslim, my job is not to take care of myself, but to take care of those around me, my people that are my community, and through that, I will be taken care of. And I can't begin to tell you how true that is. My religion dictates my actions and I'm just following that."
Qadri speaks with passion and anger about the way pharmaceutical companies have "brainwashed" medical practitioners – including himself, not so long ago – and society at large. But he's also hopeful that a holistic, diet-based approach to health will continue to spread from HUDA into Detroit at large. He envisions a network of small, self-sufficient urban gardens across the city. Land and resources are easy to find, he says; all it takes is a dedicated person to take the reins on each new garden.
Qadri notes that he's already seen positive signs for the movement he envisions. Just as he once reached out to other local urban gardeners for help, he says gardeners are now coming to him for insights on their crops' medicinal properties.
"They're coming to me and asking, 'Does Detroit need this crop?' – meaning, 'Is there a huge disease state where we can justify growing kumquats?'" he says. "That's showing me that everyone's on the same page. ... Detroit hopefully is going to be a huge medicinal urban garden site, and we want to be that model example for the rest of the country that you don't need pharmaceutical companies anymore. They can go to hell."
All photos by Nick Hagen.
The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.