Detroit's Food Economy

Building Models for Detroit’s Food Economy

by: Laura Weber-Davis

February 218, 2013



Grocery in Southwest Detroit & food growing in a Detroit Public Shool. Photo Credit: Matt Elliott, WDET

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“So it came to the point where I would have to climb down the second story back porch in order to go to school, and the reason I would go to school was because I wanted food.” -- Lavaughn “Buddah” Calhoun


Local experts say demand for healthy food could be created through nutrition education and marketing toward young children, and demand could be met - and fresh produce could become more affordable - through a regional food system that incorporates more urban agriculture. By many estimates, there are about 100-thousand vacant lots in Detroit, and that puts the city in a unique position to build a thriving economy around food.

A shift toward a regional food system that draws upon Detroit’s resources could create thousands of jobs. That’s according to local experts… who say the city has a unique opportunity for economic growth.

WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis has this report, as we wrap up WDET’s exploration of Detroit’s food economy.

Guests:
-Lavaughn “Buddah” Calhoun, Chef
-Dan Carmody, President of Eastern Market Corporation
-Malik Yakini, President of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
-Lavaughn Calhoun Jr.


This series is made possible by the generous support of our Sustaining Members. Because of you, WDET can bring this critical story to everyone in our region.

Transcript
A few months ago, we received a phone call from a man named Buddah who grew up in Detroit in the 1980s. His mother was a drug addict… and wasn’t around to take care of him.

Buddah – phone “So it came to the point where I would have to climb down the second story back porch in order to go to school, and the reason I would go to school was because I wanted food.”

Buddah – growing up “I made a promise to myself that I would never grow up to be like this. I would never put my kids through certain situations.”

That’s Buddah… who picked up the nickname as a child. As an adult he’s incredibly conscious of the food he puts in his body. And that stems back to his childhood, when he says he ate a lot of unhealthy food.

Buddah – sick “As a child I was sickly all the time.”

He says he decided to change his diet, and noticed immediate improvements in his physical and mental health. Then as a young adult he learned about ethnobotany – the study of plant-use for food, medicine, and more.

Buddah – ethnobotany “We ate from the land… just that experience alone opened my mind up to a whole new world, a real world, of what you’re supposed to eat.”

Today Buddah is a personal chef and caterer. Dan Carmody is president of Eastern Market Corporation. He says finding a job in Detroit’s food system… like Buddah did… is a smart move.

Dan – entre “I can’t for the life of me think why anyone would necessarily send someone out to be an entrepreneur about anything other than food because we’ve all got to eat and there’s going to be a good market for food when there’s not going to be a market for a lot of other stuff.”

Carmody estimates there are thousands of jobs that could be created in Detroit in industries surrounding food… including growing, harvesting, manufacturing, composting, and packaging. He thinks the most job-rich opportunities come from farmers markets, which he says act as incubators for small businesses. Carmody likens the economic potential of fresh local food to the craft beer industry.

“In 1985 I owned four bar-restaurants and they were all called ‘blank brewing company.’”

At the time Carmody thought microbreweries would be swallowed up by big brands like Budweiser and Miller, and craft beers would be a fad.

Dan – beer “But over the last 30 years it’s obviously a trend. The only growing part of the beer economy is craft beers. So again the parallel, how do you compete against large food enterprises? It really relies on putting out a product that people are willing to pay a little more money for. It really relies on consumer-driven demand.”

Local experts such as Carmody say demand for healthy food could be created through nutrition education and marketing toward young children… and demand could be met, and fresh produce could become more affordable, through a regional food system that incorporates more urban agriculture. By many estimates, there are about 100-thousand vacant lots in Detroit.

Malik – vast land “Detroit is unique in the sense that we have these vast amounts of unused land that most other cities don’t have.”

Malik Yakini is the founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini is an avid gardener and maintains a vegan diet. He says one of the best things people in Detroit can do for the food economy is to lead by example. He mentions a neighbor he’s been friends with for 40 years, who would often chat with Yakini while he gardened.

Malik – neighbor “He called me one day, I was out of town at a conference, and he said, ‘I just had to call you; I was at a supermarket and I was buying some tomatoes and I thought “Malik doesn’t buy tomatoes.” And I went to buy some greens and I thought “Malik doesn’t buy greens.”’ And so he had this like epiphany, right? And it was because of his pocket book, because of his wallet. But this is after years of kind of seeing me engaged in this process of growing my own food. But it took years before it kind of, a switch went off in his brain. And so part of how you change people’s habits is you create models, and then demonstrate the viability of those models over time.”

Yakini stresses true, deep social change doesn’t happen overnight. Many advocates in Detroit’s food system say Detroit’s economy and health could be strong and self-sustaining in the future if nutrition and gardening models are set up for kids from an early age. Here’s 18-year-old Lavaughn Calhoun.

Lavaughn – friends “It was different from the way I’d seen my friends grow up when I went to go spend the night over at their house they ate differently. And they always had greasy foods like tacos and burgers and fries all the time. But every time I went home I always ate different, healthier, baked foods instead of fried. It was just different all the way through.”

Lavaughn says he often cooks food for himself, sometimes for his younger sister. He learned how to cook from his dad, Lavaughn Senior… otherwise known as Chef Buddah. Teaching is a two-way street in the Calhoun home. Buddah says he recently bought property and plans to grow a vegetable garden with his kids.

Buddah – gardening “Both of my children are gardeners. They went to a couple classes, so they know more about it than I do. We just haven’t had the opportunity to get back there and dig up and you know, get it going yet. But this year, that’s definitely what we’re going to do.”

While city and state policymakers continue to debate big changes in government that could affect many people in Detroit… local advocates like Buddah say there is a wealth of opportunity for residents to make big changes in the food system, and thereby build up Detroit.

I’m Laura Weber-Davis. WDET News.