Agriculture, food access, race and social justice were all topics of conversation during a panel discussion held Monday to kick off the University’s first-ever Detroit Week.
Detroit Week examines a variety of barriers in the city, including racism and poverty and encourage community service in the city, according to Public Policy junior Blair Sucher, education chair of the Detroit Partnership and recruitment coordinator for the Semester in Detroit.
Several student groups including the Detroit Partnership, the Black Student Union, Black Volunteer Network, Semester in Detroit and LSA Student Government sponsor Detroit Week, with features two more Detroit-focused events scheduled for Wednesday and Saturday.
Titled the “Race and Food Justice Panel,” Monday’s lecture examined food and agriculture in terms of their historical and current impacts on the city. The lecture also explored how food helped shaped present racial relationships within the city.
The panel included local activist Oya Amakisi; Kami Pothukuchi, professor of Urban Studies at Wayne State University; and Anthony Hatinger, garden production coordinator for the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation.
Sucher said the panel aimed to look at social justice from a unique lens and to push students to look at race and hunger in Detroit from an angle they might not have thought about before.
“We just really wanted to focus on different areas of food justice,” she said. “Social justice doesn’t just happen one way, you can look at the same problem and have a lot of different solutions for it.”
Growing up, Hatinger, the garden coordinator, said he was the only biracial resident in a small Lansing suburb. He said he moved to Detroit to learn about a new culture that might subsequently help him learn more about himself. With his work in spirituality, agriculture and community development, he strives to bring together larger issues in the city like health, education and nutrition.
Pothukuchi, who was raised in Mumbai, India, employs her work in architecture and community planning to find links between communities and their food systems. Similar to Hatinger, Pothukuchi noted the importance of addressing Detroit’s larger problems including water shutoffs, housing shortages and poor land quality.
“We don’t really plan for food, that thinking is shifting partly due to the work my colleagues and I have done in raising awareness between the links between community planning and food systems and how integral those links are and how many community goals you can advance by intervening in the food system,” she said.
A self-described activist since the age of 11, Amakisi became involved in food access work after noticing the minimal knowledge Detroit residents had of cooking healthy meals and finding adequate ingredients to feed their families.
Growing up in a family of farmers from the South, Amakisi said she realized the necessity of relating to the Detroit residents she was trying to serve. To do so, she shifted the conversation to focus on the ways in which problems related to food access shaped other problems within the city.
“By growing food and these basic issues I’m also able to also get them involved in water rights, I’m also able to talk to them about neoliberalism and privatization and issues that relate to relate to their basic needs first,” she said.
The dialogue brought in the panelists’ backgrounds and their wide array of experiences to help explain barriers to food accessibility within the city.
Pothukuchi, speaking from her experience as an urban planner and architect, used history and city development to help understand these barriers.
She explained that though Detroit once housed various local, independently owned grocery stores, they were sold out by larger corporations like A&P, Kroger and Walmart — stores with buying power to bankrupt local growers and local sellers.
Furthermore, as aid from the federal government declined, the city took money from local elites and corporations while ignoring and neglecting exploited residents.
“You can talk about the corruption that politicians, about Kwame, you can talk about Kwame buying SUVs and the corruption, but Detroit did not cause the problems it experiences,” Pothukuchi said.
Amakisi described the hardships residents face in the context of food accessibility, pointing to the way public schools take away food stamps if children miss too much school and the long distances residents often walk to reach gas stations that only sell processed food.
Amakisi also mentioned the lack of knowledge residents in and out of the city have about growing and cooking food, saying that training people to build their own gardens and cook their own food can have a direct impact on developing and supporting the city.
Hatinger said power-holders like politicians and corporations oppressed residents by controlling the distribution and access to food and thus limiting the resources of the general public. He added that learning about the dynamics of power and giving food resources back to the people is what propels him to do his work with agriculture in the city.
“It’s natural, it’s natural to every person on the globe and it’s more so about getting people back in touch, letting them learn how to foster and sustain life”
The panel continued the discussion to help identify the confluences of food and the city’s racial history.
Hatinger touched on the stigma of agriculture and farming Black residents may feel due to its historic connection with sharecropping and slavery.
Amakisi spoke on the way that the construction of freeways cut through thriving Black communities within the cities and the arrival of big businesses demolished existing homes and agricultural land.
LSA freshman Elena Mosher, who attended Monday’s panel, said the biggest takeaway was the larger role food accessibility plays in the more publicized problems within the city.
“One thing that’s really important is just realizing that, like one of them said, these problems aren’t the fault of the people in Detroit, it’s really part of the bigger food system and we need to work with education and proactive movements to combat the oppression that has already occurred,” Mosher said.
Public Policy junior Hattie McKinney said she felt a larger responsibility as a college student to lead the movement to improve food resources and spread awareness of the potential harms that food consolidation brings to inner-city residents like those in Detroit.
“Basically, what everyone should know is that we should take more interest in where our food comes from, as well as what we can do to make it healthier, and to share with those who don’t have access to food at all,” she said.