FoodLab Detroit's Executive Director Devita Davison explores the inextricable link between an empowered food system and the health of Black communities.

By Devita Davison and Kat Kinsman
June 02, 2020
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Valaurian Waller

In a recent Communal Table podcast, recorded before the murder of George Floyd, FoodLab Detroit's Executive Director Devita Davison spoke with Food & Wine Senior Editor Kat Kinsman about the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on Black and brown communities, the systems that led to this inequity, and what she and others are doing to counteract that. This is an edited version of their conversation that you can listen to in full here, and you can read Davison's essay on the future of restaurants in America here.

Let’s start out with the tough question, how are you doing?

You know what? Considering what's happening to my city of Detroit, things that are happening, personally, in my family—I lost a great aunt, who died in a nursing home as a result of COVID-19—and what's happening to a generation of elders in the community who have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic in terms of number of cases and death, how am I doing? I'm grateful that I was able to get up this morning, put my feet on the ground, take in a really deep breath, and then exhale. I'm grateful that my immediate family, my mother, and my father, my brother, and my niece are safe. I'm safe and healthy.

It’s the little things that I am appreciative for, and having access to fresh, healthy food, and clean water. And that I don't have to worry about the fact that I am living in a community where that breath of fresh air could be compromising because of all the toxins that are in the air because my neighborhood is near maybe an incinerator, or because it's in a polluted area. I'm blessed.

I think of you as a person of action and I'd like for people to know more about what you're doing with FoodLab Detroit and beyond. Black and brown people are, as you said, being disproportionately affected by all of this because of ugly systemic reasons that have been here the whole. I want to talk about the existing structures that you had in place with FoodLab and then how you've reacted.

It really is tied to my own personal narrative of who I am, and how I identify, which is as a first-generation Detroiter. I am indeed a person of action. I fill my own cup by being of service to other people. That could be because I am the great-granddaughter, granddaughter, and daughter of ministers. I understand what it's like to be what's called a "servant leader," to be in a leadership position in service of other people. My ability to be action-oriented comes out of the fact that my mother and father stepped out for the very first time—like millions of African Americans did for the very first time—on faith, they stepped out on their own belief, they stepped out of the rural South, fleeing the Jim Crow South and all of the violence that was happening in the early '60s.

They took action, and that action was the Great Migration. It was the largest migratory pattern that happened within the country, when almost nine million African Americans left the rural South for the North. That action resides in me and propelled me to become, first, a part of FoodLab Detroit, and now its executive director. FoodLab Detroit, as a non-profit organization, understands very clearly the social determinants of government on food insecurity in our community.

For people who may not be as versed in this language, could you break that down?

We don't use the words “food desert.” What we use is a more appropriate term, “food apartheid,” meaning our neighborhoods and communities in the city of Detroit and communities that have been occupied with Black and brown bodies all over this country, whether it's Detroit, Harlem, the Bronx, Oakland, parts of Baltimore, DC—we live under food apartheid. A desert is a natural phenomenon, but having lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is not natural, nor is it accidental.

This is what I want folks to understand. Many Black communities lack access to fresh, healthy, affordable food as the result of the structural inequalities. I'm talking about deliberate public and private policies and resources that have been misappropriated and extracted from, and not allocated to Black and brown neighborhoods. I'm talking about policy decisions that exclude the word “healthy” from our community. That kind of inequality cannot be described as anything except food apartheid. When folks call our neighborhoods “food deserts,” it’s inappropriate and disrespectful because Detroiters boast about the fact that because of the Great Migration, not only did African Americans flee the rural South and come to the North, they brought skills with them including their ability to grow food, their ability to cultivate the land.

I'm 50 years old and in my lifetime I have seen my city of Detroit go from a population of almost two million people, to now, we hover around 700,000. But the good news about that is that it is our elder Black folks, the Hispanic folks, who migrated to Detroit for a better opportunity to work for the Big Three, Ford, GM, and Chrysler also put into play their agricultural skills. Currently, Detroit is probably the epicenter of urban agriculture in this country, with over 1600 community market, school, and family farms and gardens. That desert metaphor is inappropriate, and it diverts attention from the real inequality and unjust conditions we've seen in our community. 

So how does FoodLab address the issues on the ground?

I spend a lot of time questioning systems, imagining and asking far-reaching questions about public space and community resources, and local policies that might create something new to fill these supposedly empty spaces that we have. Rather than just inserting an out-of-town chain supermarket, which exports profits and tax dollars out of the community, FoodLab spends and does the hard work around how we cultivate a community, a network of good food businesses that are located in our communities, that are actually owned by Detroit.

 It’s not only what that looks like from a health perspective, but we now have businesses, restaurants, small grocery stores or small community markets. Or maybe we have a parking lot with food trucks. Or maybe we have farmer's markets, or community markets. What does the ecosystem and the culture of health look like when we have actual businesses that are owned by Detroiters? That could solve two problems, one around having access to healthy, fresh culturally-appropriate food, and another around giving people the opportunity to do what they love, and experience economic freedom by doing it, because now they are business owners.

What research shows, is that just by being proximate to a well-stocked grocery store is not enough of a solution, given this country's elaborate food problems. We've got to think about this from two perspectives. How can we also ensure that people actually have the money that they need to be able to afford these healthy food items?

I want to go back to this: you were saying “culturally appropriate” food. Having the food that is of your culture, and of your experience, and of your tradition, and is healthy for you is a matter of dignity and well-being. So much of this country has a hatred of poor people. It's expressed in so many ways, including infantilizing people, assuming they don't know how to eat healthily, and the denial of access to this kind of food. But there's a punitive thing where the food that people are given access to, isn't as complex, isn’t as nutritious. It’s “shut up and enjoy, be grateful for what you're given,” but that ruins the soul.

Absolutely. I was radicalized around this food movement a long time ago. My mother, her peers, and our neighbors always had gardens in their backyard. She took the lead, and we assisted my her in planting tomatoes, peppers, collard greens, turnip greens, cucumbers, and onions. I know what it's like to have access to fresh food and have a mother and a father to build community in our home around the kitchen. In 2007 every single national and regional grocery store chain abandoned the city of Detroit. ampm left, Farmer Jack’s left. Meijers left. Krogers left. There were independently-owned grocery stores, but no national, regional grocery store chains here.

I can remember the elders saying, "Let the grocery stores leave the city of Detroit. We know how to grow our own food.” Sitting at the footsteps of the elders and watching them grow in community gardens, and family gardens, and school gardens, gave me the language that I have today—which is this aim for sovereignty and independence.

At this moment I'm thinking of how many of communities are really taking the time right now, particularly in Black and brown communities, where we know we are disproportionately affected by this virus, and we understand that how some of it leads to our own health issues, whether it be diabetes, or heart conditions, or obesity—they are structural issues.

What are we doing to develop an economy of place, where we now can grow some of our own food-developing skills aiming for sovereignty and independence? What does that look like in our community, where we're creating this culture of health? Farmers markets, community markets, urban farming, cooperative grocery stores, Black-owned healthy food business. It is this that gives community members self-worth, while being able to make a living doing something that advances the entire community.

The real power of FoodLab is that when we're able to do that, we create a narrative that speaks of the richness of community. And the richness provides an important guide for moving the story away from a narrative of lack, like a food desert. 

Farming is key to all of this, but do you convey this message to younger members of the community?

I love Detroit Black Community Food Security Network [DCBSFN], where Baba Malik Yakini is the executive director. Another organization is Oakland Avenue Farms, where Mama Jerry Hebron is—and notice my reverence for my elders, I call them Baba Malik and Mama Jerry because this is how we speak to people when we respect and we regard the knowledge of our elders. A dear friend of mine, my sister friend Ashley Atkinson, is one of the co-directors of an organization called Keep Growing Detroit.

All of those organizations have an apprenticeship program where a part of their practice and programming is to work directly with our youth. One of the things that I love about DBCFSN is that they have one of the baddest, baddest youth programs—we call them our little food warriors. They start maybe as young as, maybe six, seven, or eight, all the way into their teens.

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has the largest urban farm in the city of Detroit, which I think hovers around seven to eight acres. They have an intensive, a deep program dedicated to our young people that revolves around farming, and cooking the produce that they grow to create added-value products—where they might even be able to become entrepreneurs themselves. Keep Growing Detroit does the same thing with these young people. We understand that it's important to build a pipeline, the next generation of growers, and dismantle some of the trauma that sits in our hearts, that sits in our belly around Black people putting their hands in the dirt.

This is trauma that is associated with and tagged to slavery. "I don't want to be a slave. I'm not working in the farm. My ancestors did that." We want to flip the script, change the narrative, and rewrite the story around how farming and putting your hands in the dirt is healed. How powerful that is, and farming snatches back that power. It puts the power in your hand. 

You talk about these lines of this generational healing and activism, but there is the trauma. It is marrow-deep, and that's got to be such an emotional process.

In the city of Detroit not only do we see our elders in the fields and working and creating this delicious produce and farming— we have amazing chefs in the city of Detroit that are cooking this amazing produce, as well. It is about changing the narrative. That's our job. Our young people are reading these antiquated history books that teach them—probably around the time of February, around Black History Month—that the only thing Blacks were capable of doing and able to do was to use their bodies, their bones, and yes, their blood, sweats, and tears to build out the agricultural ecosystem of this country, which we know is the foundation of wealth creation. We understand that Black and brown bodies created wealth in this country. If that's all they hear, then yes, they would attribute that to being lesser than.

If we begin to flip the script, we can talk about the importance of how Black and brown folks laid the foundation of this country's agricultural history, and from that created foodways that cannot separate from the food that Black and brown people have grown. We can begin to introduce the entire ecosystem—that not only were we farmers, not only did we take the produce that we grow, but we were also some of the most amazing cooks and chefs. We grew to also become distillers. We made beer, and we made alcohol. You have to tell the whole story, so that instead of being ashamed of who you are and where you come from, it becomes a sense of pride. And it also becomes a point of resilience.

I use that word with a little trepidation because I don't really like the word "resiliency." But I want young people to understand that as bad as this pandemic is, as much as Black folks have been disproportionately affected by this violence, Black people in this country have seen days worse than COVID-19. And we got through. The same spirit that got our ancestors through will get us through. I don't want people to take this moment and be despaired by this moment. I want them to take this moment and become radicalized by this moment.

Now is the time you should be asking yourself, "What is it that I am called to do in this moment?" Because we are writing a new chapter in American history. The old way of doing things is no more. We're writing, so what is going to be your contribution to the new chapter? I'm ready for that and I'm surrounding myself with people who have the vision and aspiration, who have the passion and dedication, who have the foresight, who want to understand that they are a part of America's tomorrow.

We have to be really clear about the systems that did not work, so that we don't replicate those same systems.

What questions do you ask yourself on a practical level?

How do we create the infrastructure? How do we create the businesses? How do we create a financial model so we can move food from the field, and through the supply chain so that we are actually getting healthy fresh food to people. We have to understand where the inequalities and oppressions were built into the systems. And then we have to make sure we don't replicate it. But, Kat, I'm afraid.

Because, while you and I are talking, and while I'm on the phone with friends, and family, and people who I love, strategizing, there are other people who want things to go back to how they were, and they're strategizing, too.

Here is what they want us to think: "If the shutdown has produced joblessness, and joblessness is causing misery, that means that we have to end the shutdown." It's just that simple because that's it. People are saying that the shutdown is producing joblessness, and joblessness is causing misery, and so we have to end it. But that's too simple.

Neither one of us has the answer in the moment, but what is the better question we could be asking?

The argument is premised on the idea that the economic misery people are suffering right now is an unavoidable effect of shutting down parts of the economy, I am here to tell you that that is a lie.

They want you to think the government has caused all your troubles by imposing this economic shutdown, but that's not true. The government has imposed an economic shutdown without introducing the kinds of policies that would make a shutdown tolerable. The United States of America had a choice. It's had many choices. 

Number one, I think that it has done an absolute, abysmal job of protecting people's employment. This country could have simply paid salaries during the crisis, like every, or many other countries did, but they made a choice not to do that. Why? Because you talked about the ideology. You talked about the fact that there's a pathology in this country, particularly in our government, that they hate poor people.

This is increasingly clear.

They hate handouts to poor people more than they hate the poor. But they'll give handouts to billionaires and millionaires, and corporations ever day. We saw that through PPP. We saw that, giving handouts to companies that didn't even need it, ones that]could access capital in other places. But]we can't even begin to have those discussions because if we talk about handout, or we talk about having a national health insurance system or we talk about eating into corporate profits, conversation shuts down.

So what then does a model of a restaurant begin to look like? Listen. you know and I know restaurateurs who are friends, and chefs who are friends, who absolutely love their staff. And they're just as mad and pissed off as we are that they don't have, right now, in this country, we don't have a model for most of the majority of restaurants that allow them to have a profitable restaurant and be able to pay their workers without tips. They can't even, in many cases, afford to give them healthcare.

I know very few who do.

So could you imagine having a nationalized healthcare system in this country, where everyone was afforded the opportunity to have good quality healthcare, and what a relief that would be for small business owners who wrestle with that every day?

It would change everything.

Could you imagine how that could turn restaurants around? Could you imagine if we began to question: Do restaurants even have to be profitable? We're seeing right now through the FEED Act. Vice President Biden just had a panel discussion with Chef José Andrés talking about the thousands of restaurants right now that are operating as commissary kitchens that are feeding our most vulnerable population, feeding workers on the front lines.

What does it look like for a restaurant to not be profitable? Hell, I know many of them are probably operating as non-profits already.

They do.

Right? Right? No. I'm serious.

Restaurant people are the very first people who in any kind of crisis, whether it's natural, or manmade, are the people on the front lines who are going out there, "How do I get everybody fed?" They roll up with a smoker and some Cambros, or whatever it is that they need to.

I mean, you can give a chef some food, babe. They can make it happen. Let me tell you something, when you pour relief into a restaurant, then I can probably guarantee that for every dollar that goes into a restaurant, 90 cents probably goes out.

Do you know how many vendors, how many people, how many other industries we support? Do you understand that? Fishermen, farmers, florists that we support, linens, disposable napkins, and knives, and I mean, the landlords that we pay, I mean, seriously. Restaurants pay so many people. Just making sure that restaurants stay alive can fuel so many other industries that are a part of the restaurant ecosystem.

So we have to ask ourselves like, what does a restaurant then look like without the confines of being in a brick and mortar? What's that look like?

I've seen how my friends have transformed their restaurants. I have some friends who are working with José Andrés in New Orleans, and they immediately got out there and said, "We're Cajun. We can just get a little bit of food, and we can feed so many people." They were feeding frontline workers, they were feeding laid-off hospitality people, but they are finding this sense of purpose. People go into the restaurant industry because they like to serve other people.

A life of service is such a beautiful and special and undervalued thing. People in this country have gotten very used to what they think restaurants should cost because there are so many invisible people who work in a restaurant. I think so much of this is laying bare all of the labor and the hands and the hearts and the souls and the humanity and the families of the people who are actually making this food happen, so you can sit down and have a nice damn meal.

Exactly.

My dream is in the future of this that the people who are working in the back-of-house are as lauded as the person whose name is on the marquee, or the menu, or whatever it happens to be because it doesn't happen without them.

It does not. Here's what I would like to happen: We, in the city of Detroit, understand the importance of organizing, and it could be because our history around labor, around organizing, is rooted as a result of the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers. So we know on the importance of what it takes to have a labor movement that galvanizes this country.

So not only do I want to make sure that our back-of-house workers and our front-of-house workers are just as important and recognized as the executive chef, or the restaurateur, I think that's important, but I also think that it is incumbent upon us to do as much work as we can around educating consumers.

Listen. When we come out of this, consumers need to understand that there is a value proposition that aligns with your own personal values when you choose to go out and buy a Popeye's chicken sandwich for $3.99. You need to understand, in order to get you that chicken sandwich at $3.99, how many bodies have been oppressed as a result of that? And consumer, you need to make the value choice. You love your restaurants? You are longing for them now. You want them around now. Well, love them when we begin to reshape and change the restaurant industry.

That means, as their consumers, we have to pay a little bit more money for your hamburger, your chicken, your Cobb salad, whatever that looks like. These prices are going to have to increase because I have talked to too many chefs and too many restaurateurs, who said, "Devita, I'm not going back to normal. I'm going to figure out a way, I'm going to figure out a model for how to take care of my people."

Well, you have that effect on people.

So this might show up in menu prices. I just want to warn people. There was an excellent article that had a menu and asked a question, "Would consumers be willing to pay this amount?" And they scratched out the price, and they wrote in pencil what that particular menu item will cost, if the business model of the restaurant ensured that their salary workers were paid wages that they did not rely on tips to be subsidized by their customers, and health insurance and paid time off, or they had sick leave.

This can't happen without consumer demand, for consumers to start asking questions like, "I love your restaurant. This is great. Oh, you guys make my favorite pasta. How are you guys treating your staff?" Ask your server, "How are you? Do you get paid? Do you have health insurance?"

Start asking questions, opening up your mouth and ask about the staff and the people. See them. See them. Then ask about them because the only way this changes, if consumers start making cognizant choices to say, "You know what? I want to align my dollar with my values."

That means looking at my budget and say, "You know what? I might not be able to go out three times a week, but I'm going to spend my money maybe once every Friday night, or once every other Saturday, or that time in which I now want to go out and get a great meal, but I'm going to spend my dollars with the restaurants that I know that are taking care of its staff."

That's ensuring that farmers are getting the appropriate wages for the beautiful produce that they grow. When consumers start making that cognizant choice, restaurants who aren't doing that will be irrelevant. And they won't be able to survive because there's such an overwhelming demand for restaurants who are doing it the right way. I want us to start making that choice.

Do you see other efforts out there that you think could maybe counterweight what is happening and offer other perspective? 

Here's what I know, as an African American woman who sits in the city of Detroit, who has been radicalized, who's been inspired, who has had the privilege of having my body wrapped up in our elders and understands our history, because what I know is that change, sweetie, comes from the bottom up, not the top down. The talent is here. The skill is here. Passion's here. We got this, Kat. We got it.