DETROIT – About two years ago, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation made a gutsy call to convene its 2014 food and nutrition conference in Detroit. Even then, declining economic fortunes and subsequent social disruptions dominated most of the narratives about the city’s future.
Yet, the wisdom of selecting the Motor City as the host site for this May’s Harvesting Change Food and Community Gathering was borne out last week as more than 650 food advocates from Hawaii, Alaska, and the lower 48 gathered to share knowledge and information about the “good food” movement.
“I’m a give you compost the only way a poet and emcee can give it to you,” boasted Detroit-born spoken-word artist Kidiri Sennefer, one of conference’s first speakers. He then launched into a rap that examined the politics of America’s eating habits, fast-food addictions and corporate food-systems dominance.
Sennefer’s day job is compost manger of D-Town Farm, ensuring enriched soil for the vegetables and fruits grown on the now seven-acre enterprise inside Rouge Park, Detroit’s largest public park.
The farm is a project of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a grassroots organization. Its mission is to improve the nutritional and dietary options for city residents through good food.
Conference attendees ranged from farmers and farm workers to urban gardeners, restaurant workers, policy analysts, and nutritionists.
Betti Wiggins of the Detroit Public Schools Office of School Nutrition said her office has received great support, some through the network of relationships past conferences afforded her. She said the city is attaining its goals of bringing healthier foods to school children, particularly through its lunch program.
“I’m proud to say we’re a big fat success,” she exclaimed, noting that Detroit’s lunches now exceed USDA standards and the school system’s progress and achievements have been nationally recognized by good food advocates, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Wiggins encouraged attendees to also visit “our 77 school gardens, our two-acre farm” which contribute to the school system’s aggregate of locally grown food. She said her office has plans to add another 30 acres at a high school as a resource.
Importantly, Wiggins pointed out, the school system, at 22 percent, has exceeded its goal of drawing 20 percent of its food from farms and gardens in and around Detroit and that benchmark will continue to be raised. In addition, 16 new permanent staff positions have been added as a result, a glimpse of the potential of how sourcing locally grown and regional food can contribute to a city’s employment base.
One fiscal argument for augmenting local food networks is to reduce the tremendous costs that fuel and labor add to shipping produce from distant sites, whether in urban areas like Detroit or rural regions of the country such as Alaska.
“In some of our isolated villages in Alaska, families are having to choose between the price of heating oil and food,” reported Dave Monture, technical assistance specialist for the Intertribal Agriculture Council. He said the cost of milk in some areas has risen to $20 a gallon. But Monture said he was encouraged for the future of sustainable agriculture practices and the good food movement by the presence of youth participants in attendance scattered among and often mentored by their elders with decades of experience.
Still, Monture cautioned that perfecting expertise in community development initiatives must be balanced by the holistic awareness of the impact of larger systems on food issues, energy and climate change.