Can Whole Foods Coexist with the Homegrown Food Movement?


A new Whole Foods recently broke ground in Detroit, but not everyone is excited. 

Over the years my relationship with Whole Foods has evolved, along with my understanding of food justice and community. I shopped at Whole Foods seven years ago when I lived in Brooklyn, and when I lived in Oakland three years ago. It has often been a beacon of healthy food options when I am on the road in an unknown place

Yes, it’s too expensive for me, but it was always such a pleasurable experience to walk in, and have all this bright natural food there. I thought everything in the store was automatically healthier than anything I could get outside of the store.

Mind you, I wasn’t into food justice or even personal food health then. I didn’t have a dedication to small local health food stores, farmers markets and growers. I didn’t have an intimate relationship with fruits and vegetables. I was so impressed with myself for shopping there, getting overpriced salads and frozen quiche and veggie entrees, sliced salami at the deli, looking tenderly at the produce area on my way to check out.

I learn through relationships, and I didn't have regular relationships with a lot of urban gardening folks, at least not with the young white folks who appeared to be the main folks in it. 

But that all changed. My food justice analysis developed through political work with Common Fire, Movement Generation and the Ruckus Society, and on a personal level, from knowing Bryant Terry, and watching my sister Autumn get into growing and canning foods and facilitating food justice work. Through relationship with people from a lot of backgrounds, including white folks, I came into awareness around key pieces of food justice. 

One was that it isn’t necessarily about the “organic” nature of the food that goes into my body, but about how whole and fresh and local that food is. A lot of the foods I was getting in Whole Foods weren’t whole at all, but highly processed and from thousands of miles away. I had to develop a much deeper and closer relationship to food.

I also learned that small local health food stores are impacted by big chain stores like Whole Foods. This, just like every other space where I spend money, was a place to align myself with justice. 

Around this time I started coming to Detroit to facilitate social justice work. 

I went on one of Detroit-based rapper/organizer Invincible's famous tours of the city, where she lifts up the curtain of ruin and blight to show a beautiful fertile land full of brilliant philosophers and radical creators and growers. 

Here, I met people who were the living embodiment of food justice. They blew wide open my idea of what food justice looked like, felt like. I wanted to be them when I grew up, or at least eat like them. And compost. And garden. And create sustenance from scratch and scraps.

I met elder/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, who told me about the Gardening Angels, elderly black Detroiters who had seeded an urban gardening movement in response to the economic crisis of the '80s.

I heard Malik Yakini, of the Detroit Black Food Security Network, speak about the ancestral legacy of growing our own food as a way of growing our communities. 

I met Myrtle and Wayne Thompson, who created Feedom Freedom Farm, where they bring black youth into an ongoing political education conversation that happens in the context of growing and harvesting delicious local food.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned of the work of Lottie Spady, who worked with In Our Own Backyard and East MI Environmental Action Council, connecting the right to have local food with the right to create local media, with splashes of science fiction all over it. 

They taught me about food justice through what they embodied. Food justice meant it was local, it was healthy, it was part of a cycle of relating to the land and our bodies, it was grown by people who owned the land and had power over what happened on it, and loved what they were doing. It was biodiverse and it created a cycle of resources into the community.

And because Detroit had been in economic crisis for about 30 years, during which over half the city population migrated to find opportunity in other places (sound familiar?), food justice meant that folks were growing their food in their backyards and reclaiming abandoned lots for small farms. 

It meant that the face of urban agriculture in Detroit was working-class Detroiters, the majority of them black. 

It meant that the best way to resist, to fight, to build movement, was to literally grow. 

In 2009, people at a national level started to look at Detroit as a space to invest and build things. One thing people noticed was the urban agricultural movement here. The local community came together to respond to this interest, to articulate that there was movement here that could be engaged collectively. Out of this was born the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, which quickly became bigger than a circle of folks responding to national interest. 

In 2010, I was hired to facilitate the Detroit Food Justice Task Force for a year. As I worked with an amazing team to help hold the space for this task force to grow, it was like going through a graduate school program on how food justice truly touches every aspect of our lives. 

I got to work with Charity Hicks, a lifelong Detroiter who helped write the Detroit Food Policy, and Gregg Newsom who, along with his wife Angela, started People's Kitchen to make healthy local food available for free or low-cost. 

I met growers, community organizers, technology hackers, radical nuns, environmentalists, teachers, social workers, national movement builders, city planners, food policy experts, and more than anything else, people who liked to eat good healthy food. Working with the team and the task force, it quickly became apparent that the food justice movement was huge in Detroit, but not necessarily self-aware.

So, instead of developing a series of workshops to teach the community about healthy local food justice stuff, we decided to partner with local (read neighborhood) institutions to co-create events for the community to cook together, eat together and begin to see each other as a network of people breaking new ground around the relationship of food and urban community. 

The events were spectacular, with communities sharing what they loved about food in their communities, who in their neighborhood made sure they ate, where they got their food from, and where the groceries, gardens and farms were in their neighborhoods.

Food sources ranged from liquor stores to gas stations to Coney Islands (Detroit’s answer to diners), with a few folks loving on the Grown in Detroit stand at Eastern Market, where black youth and adult allies sell kale, broccoli, radishes, collards, cucumbers, pickles, lettuce, garlic, turnips and beets all grown within a mile of the heart of the city. A number of people also spoke lovingly of Goodwell’s, a black-owned health food store in the Cass Corridor neighborhood, which sells a growing assortment of vegan and vegetarian items, and has recently added bulk teas and spices.

Folks were also being fed by their churches, their neighbors, their schools and their grandmothers. 

Almost everyone who came had a relationship to the land and what could grow in it, if not directly, then in their families. Which makes sense in a city that softly calls itself upsouth because so many people migrated north during and after slavery with their farming and gardening skills intact. 

I realized I was in a community with the children and grandchildren of individuals who responded to freedom, hunger and an absence of jobs by planting tomatoes and romaine and potatoes and green beans in their yards. 

I was in a community that was so grateful for the abundance of growers and food providers, that when we started to hear rumors that Whole Foods was thinking about coming to Detroit, we weren’t interested. We wanted to support our own local folks through markets, learn together how to build small businesses to move this produce up from the soil and onto our tables.

I also realized that though it is clearer in Detroit, this way of seeing food justice work applies no matter where I am. In every community there are people who are feeding their communities, growing food, teaching nutrition, growing a desire for health and investing in small local business that support food sovereignty. Detroit has changed the way I see the world of food.

Whole Foods has broken ground a few blocks from my house and I am sure some folks will shop there. I am rooting for the community advisory committee that is working to ensure that Whole Foods attends to issues such as buying from local growers, the well-being of other food providers such as Goodwell's, and hiring Detroiters to construct and work in the store. They are hoping to set an example of how the corporate world can approach the community, respecting and include their wisdom, skills and input, bringing people who are or will be most affected to the table of planning and decision making, so that not only this Whole Foods, but all Whole Foods, become a part of community success rather than a wrecking ball to local food justice infrastructure.

That’s how Detroit does it.

But me personally? I’ll be biking to Eastern Market for my Grown in Detroit products, stopping by Goodwell’s for pantry goods, and loving this city as it continues to teach me justice.

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