D-Town: African American Farmers, Food Security and Detroit

The Black metropolis of Detroit is, in many respects, a “food desert” where “both economic and physical barriers stand between people and their access to healthy and affordable foods.” But D-Town activists believe the people can grow and organize themselves out of the desert, through urban agriculture. “In the process of controlling the food supply, the farmers see themselves as developing self-reliance.”


D-Town: African American Farmers, Food Security and Detroit

by Monica M. White, Ph.D.

Detroit is the future for urban agriculture.”

There is no question that Detroit has long experienced the social and economic impact of de-industrialization, de-population, urban dis-investment, high unemployment, under-education, and, most recently, the foreclosure crisis. With the excitement of the U.S. Social Forum in the air and the tens of thousands of activists descending upon the city of Detroit to discuss, engage and network with others, grassroots organizers are here to address these and other social ills plaguing our dying urban centers.

One area where the impact of dis-investment in our urban centers is most evident is in the services that are responsible for providing food for their citizens. Often referred to as a supermarket shortage, there is a growing trend of major grocery stores to close their urban locations for more financially affluent suburban destinations, making access to healthy food more difficult for city residents who are often compromised by lack of employment options, transportation and economic resources. The gaps left behind when grocery stores vacate the city are often filled by an influx of fringe food retailers such as “liquor stores, gas stations, and convenience stores, party stores, dollar stores, bakeries, pharmacies, and other venues” (Gallagher, 2007, p. 5). Either from sheer neglect or decisions based on profit, these inner city stores often sell inadequate products to the city’s most vulnerable residents. Many of these markets specialize in the sale of alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, and a small selection of prepackaged and canned food products high in salt, fat, and sugar.

Detroiters’ lack of accessibility to adequate food has been well documented (Zenk, et. Al, 2005; Zenk, et. Al, 2006, Baker, et. Al, 2006). There were once as many as six grocery store chains that once operated within the city limits. However, in 2007, Farmer Jack became the last major grocery-store chain to close its doors on the citizens of the city (Smith and Hurst, 2007). Even before then, Detroit citizens suffered from insufficient access to grocery stores and major supermarkets; in fact, many areas within Detroit are designated as “food deserts” (Gallagher, 2007, p. 2). Food deserts are geographical locations where both economic and physical barriers stand between people and their access to healthy and affordable foods. The places where healthy food exists tend to be financially inaccessible and, where such food is plentiful, those areas are geographically out of reach for local residents, many of whom have limited access to reliable transportation.

Many of these markets specialize in the sale of alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets, and a small selection of prepackaged and canned food products high in salt, fat, and sugar.”

Detroit fits the profile of a food desert on all key variables. Detroit is approximately 82% African American, and almost 30% of its residents live below the poverty line (U.S. Census, 2000). In addition, one fifth of the city’s population is without transportation (Gallagher, 2007, p. 4). Gallagher and her colleagues (2007) are especially troubled that “any major city located in a state with a rich tradition of agriculture can have such a high degree of food imbalance” (p. 6). Even more disturbing is the existence of a food desert such as Detroit in a nation where seven out of ten of the world’s top producers of food are U.S. companies (Hunkar, 2008) and is

the world’s largest producer and exporter of food” (Ahn, 2004, p. 1).

Given the history of social movements in Detroit, there is a growing grassroots resistance around these issues of food justice and access for poor people and people of color. In selecting Detroit as the city for the 2010 destination of the Social Forum meetings, the organizers were no doubt interested in the food justice work that has gained international attention in its potential to transform the city with a concentration on urban agriculture. Detroit is referred to as to the future for urban agriculture.

While many organizations operate within the city to address citizen’s need for access to affordable, healthy and accessible food within a “reasonable” distance from where people live, an organization stands out as one of few African American food justice organizations in the country, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), started in 2006, is a non-profit grassroots community organization spearheaded by Malik Yakini, a long-time Black liberation activist, bookstore owner, and school administrator. Mr. Yakini called together a group of people who were interested in engaging in urban agriculture to “grasp larger control over the food system and to build self-reliance in our community” (personal communication). Organizationally, they wanted to address Detroit’s food insecurity on four levels; to create a city-wide food policy, to develop a food buying co op, to engage in youth education and to establish an urban farm. Since its inception, DBCFSN was instrumental in engineering a comprehensive food-security policy that would provide citizens with an “adequate amount of nutritious, culturally appropriate food at all times, from sources that are environmentally sound and just” (p.1). Not only was the food policy unanimously adopted by the Detroit City Council, they also agreed to create the Detroit Food Policy Council. They operate the U-Ujamaa Food Buying Co-op where members are able to purchase healthy foods, supplements and household items at discount prices. In addition, D-Town farm, developed as a critical project and began in the planting season of 2006, is located on two acres of city-owned land in Rouge Park, with the expansion of an additional five acres yet to be approved. D-Town farm “utilizes sustainable, earth-friendly food production techniques to produce thousands of pounds of high quality, fresh produce each year.” (DBCFSN, 2006, p. 1).

Detroit fits the profile of a food desert on all key variables.”

Strategically, D-Town activists challenge the social structure that is supposed to provide access to healthy food. They demonstrate agency by interrogating the structures that others hold responsible for delivering food access. They do so in three ways: (1) They challenge the government’s capacity to provide a safe and clean supply of food; (2) They challenge the government’s capacity to provide culturally relevant information about healthy food; and (3) They demand control of their local food-security movement. They thus challenge the structure that is seen as responsible for providing the human right to food and step in to fill the vacuum that their challenge generates.

For this study, I interviewed ten D-Town farmers who were highly involved in the organization during the previous farm season, determined by the volunteer rolls maintained by the organization’s farm manager. I discovered that much of what the members of the organization had to say in the interviews was about control and power. Much of what they discussed, regardless of the questions I asked, dealt with their efforts to be the agents of their own transformation and the transformation of the city of Detroit by claiming the human right to food. Certainly, they were interested in issues such as neighborhood beautification and food safety, but they were equally interested in taking and maintaining control of their own efforts to produce and secure healthy food.

While some scholars and activists who see access to food as a human right are likely to see that right as including control over the food supply by an entity that has sufficient monitoring and enforcement power, D-Town farmers, however, eschew the idea that someone or something else has or must have control over their food supply and see themselves as having sufficient power to control it. D-Town farmers’ reject the government’s efforts to control food because of its ineptitude and its lack of care about the Black community. They assert that recent events reinforce the notion that the government is incapable of providing or unwilling to provide citizens with safe, clean, and affordable food. Government agencies, then, are seen to be lax in food safety issues and, as a result, fail to protect citizens from the use of genetically modified foods and pesticides.

D-Town farm ‘utilizes sustainable, earth-friendly food production techniques to produce thousands of pounds of high quality, fresh produce each year.’”

Members of the D-Town farm also argue that they cannot count on others to provide them with healthy foods because availability of such food is based on race and class privilege. They note that those who live in more affluent communities have mechanisms to monitor available food. They also have easy access to safe and clean food and a wider range of healthy food options. Those who live in wealthy, predominantly White neighborhoods have the financial means to make choices about conventional versus organically grown fruits and vegetables.

Instead of petitioning the government or local merchants to control their food supply in more effective ways, the D-Town farmers reject governmental and market involvement and assume control of their own food supply. In the process of controlling the food supply, the farmers see themselves as developing self-reliance. Through farming, they argue, they can produce their own food, invest in their communities, and encourage community members to learn much-needed survival skills.

What began for the D-Town farmers as an effort to control their food supply and thus to secure the human right to food came to have significance for them beyond access to food. They chose to become the parties with the responsibility for securing that right, developing as a result self-reliance and agency in multiple areas of their lives.

Members of D-Town challenge the social structure’s methods of information dissemination about food content. They do so through a commitment to educate the public about the importance of food choices, the dangers of unhealthy food, and the benefits of healthy food and exercise. They describe the importance of informing citizens about making healthy food decisions by providing culturally relevant and easily accessible literature directed specifically to the Black community regarding the importance of growing food, adding healthy fruits and vegetables to the daily diet, and exercise.

D-Town farmers’ reject the government’s efforts to control food because of its ineptitude and its lack of care about the Black community.”

To provide community control over access to the information on healthy dietary changes, D-Town farmers offer workshops and training sessions at the request of community organizations and church groups about healthy food choices. The organization’s members also volunteer their time during the fall Harvest Festival to lead discussions and give presentations about composting, growing food in small spaces, and the importance of sustainable agriculture. At such events, the D-Town farmers work to inform citizens from an African-American perspective about healthy lifestyles such as vegetarianism and encourage consideration of dietary practices such as eating raw and living foods.

D-Town farmers, by providing information to members of their community, regain control of the food choices in their community. They present information about the hazards of the foods that come to them under the control of others and information about health and nutrition that is culturally relevant to their community. If the food that reaches their community is going to be healthy, they assert, it will be because they themselves have control of the process of assessing the quality of the food and are able to distribute that information to their community members.

By exerting control over the nature and dissemination of information about food, the D-Town farmers again proclaim that they are the ones who will secure their human right to food. They refuse to cede responsibility for this job to agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

A third way in which D-Town farmers challenge responsibility for the right to food is in their association with the community food-security movement. While many of those who are hungry and who lack access to healthy food are poor people and people of color who live in urban areas, members of the food-security movement tend to be White, affluent suburbanites (Slocum, 2006).

D-Town activists challenge the White privilege embedded in the food security movement.”

Whites engaged in the movement often have access to philanthropic resources outside of the community and are able to leverage their positions of privilege to provide food and gardening resources to the less fortunate. D-Town activists challenge the White privilege embedded in the food security movement and demand that they themselves lead the movement to provide food for the citizens of their community.

D-Town activists argue that the issues of food security are different for people who actually live in a food desert such as Detroit. For those who are economically disadvantaged and who lack transportation, issues of food access take on a much greater urgency than those who have several options right outside their doorsteps.

A primary way in which the D-Town farmers show their control of their own movement is in the name of their organization, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. When they were deciding what to call it, they debated whether Black should be in the name. While some members of the organization argued that Black would limit the resources to which they would have access, others argued that Black in the name was an essential identifying aspect that would unite them with the community they represented and signal their control over the movement.

D-Town farmers not only demonstrate a skepticism of the government’s capacity to provide for them, but, in the process, they develop methods to deliver human rights that foster a sense of self-determination and self-sufficiency. In the midst of a structural failure to provide the human right to access to clean and healthy food, D-Town farmers demonstrate agency by providing mechanisms to protect their food sources, to disseminate information about food, and to exercise their voice in the food-security movement. That the organization is engaged in urban farming is only part of a much larger mission to create structures that end relationships of dependency and that educate people about the importance of providing for themselves.

Urban farming is only part of a much larger mission to create structures that end relationships of dependency.”

The actions of the D-Town Farmers demonstrate that those who live in economically depressed communities have a number of options for action. One is to challenge the relationship between citizens and the state and for citizens to stop relying on the state to provide them with desired human rights. Ending a relationship that is dependent upon the whim of a supermarket chain or a politician’s popularity, these farmers have decided to control their own food supply and their own movement. They are in agreement with humanitarian agencies and human rights advocates that all citizens should have access to healthy food. But they are not interested in relying on governmental or humanitarian bodies to deliver this food. Instead, they choose to provide food for themselves and their community. In providing an alternative behavioral option to dependence on the state, they prefer to act in ways that demonstrate agency and empowerment.

The U.S. Social Forum has established a Food Justice Work Brigade that will contribute to the work of local food justice organizations by offering labor to assist with existing community gardening projects throughout the city, by prepping, planting and weeding. They will develop greenhouses and hoop houses, temporary shelters for season extension and an aquaponics project that will provide communities with fresh fish by constructing ponds. They are also working with local schools to develop outdoor classrooms, locations where students will create art, engage in growing and selling their own food and developing community spaces that nurture students to engage with the environment and learn from being with nature.

Dr. Monica M. White is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Wayne State University. She can be contacted at [email protected].


Ahn, Christine. 2004. Breaking Ground: The Community Food Security Movement, Backgrounder, Volume 10, Number 1.

Baker, Elizabeth, Mario Schootman, Ellen Barnidge, and Cheryl Kelly. 2006. The role of race and poverty in access to foods that enable individuals to adhere to dietary guidelines. Preventing chronic disease: Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy 3, no. 3

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. 2008. <http://detroitblackfoodsecurity.org/>. (November 18, 2008).

Gallagher, M., 2007. Examining the Impact of food deserts on public health in Detroit.

Zenk Shannon.N., Amy J. Schulz, Beth, A. Isreal, Sherman A. James, Shuming Bao, Mark L. Wilson. 2005. Neighborhood racial composition, neighborhood poverty, and the spatial accessibility of supermarkets in metropolitical Detroit. American Journal of Public Health 95, 660-667.