Malik Yakini Forging Black Food Sovereignty in Detroit
By Kwase Lane
DETROIT, Michigan — I met with Malik Yakini, co-founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) at the organization’s office, an unassuming place tucked in among a phone repair shop and a bartending school. DBCFSN’s commitment to their projects is evident at the office: posters, jars that will one day contain D-Town Farm honey and a desk strewn with papers, a heavily marked calendar hanging above it.
Since 2008, DBCFSN has operated the seven-acre D-Town urban farm located in Detroit’s Rouge Park and has overseen the development of the Detroit Food Policy Council to create a comprehensive, community-based food security policy. They are now currently working to build the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a community controlled grocery cooperative that will serve an urban, predominantly Black, low and moderate-income community. Yakini shared that the organization had more calls requesting information on how to start home gardens than the previous five years combined. That was April 2020.
“People were shocked by the fragility of the American food system,” said Yakini “but I think the other factor was when George Floyd was murdered.”
DBCFSN’s goals lie in the intersection of food sovereignty and racial justice, so the events of 2020 led to a massive increase in interest regarding their work. Yakini assured me this was the case with many agricultural workers across the United States.
The concept of Food Sovereignty, which focuses on the underlying structural causes of hunger, represents a pivot in the way most consumers perceive the food system. By becoming the producers of what they eat, citizens are able to resist corporate food regimes and the inequities they reinforce.
The term food desert is often used in relation to food sovereignty, but mainstream movements rarely acknowledge the holes in the theory.. According to research by Chicago Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing, people residing within food deserts typically only have to travel two more miles for healthy food than those outside. The issue therefore lies not with the placement of resources themselves, but with the capital that might be used to buy them.
America at large is no stranger to the consequences of extractive economies, but the histories of Detroit and Appalachia lay bare the ills of this system. Both areas were conditioned by their respective industries into a relationship of reliance and then eventually abandoned in favor of cheaper labor and new tracts of land. Detroit’s patron was automakers, Appalachia’s was the coal industry.
Until the early 1950’s Detroit was the automotive industry’s golden child. The city’s meteoric rise from being the nation’s 13th
largest city to its fifth was partly due to the 125 auto companies that called the city home. However, only a handful of these companies survived industry wide restructuring in the mid to late 50s. After a series of protests, union battles and ultimately victories for the working class, car producers began to decentralize the industry in search of cheaper labor overseas. This, coupled with racial unrest, white flight and structural divestment, led to the decline of the once-great economic powerhouse, Detroit.
Similarly, Appalachia’s current economic state is a result of decades of campaigns designed to engender dependence on the coal industry justified under the guise of modernization. Despite extensive labor organizing and uprisings by miners, companies maintained control over the working poor by establishing entire towns where miners worked, lived, and spent their paychecks. This system prevented upward mobility and self-determination for most Appalchians and sustained an enduring myth of laziness and moral failure.
Food sovereignty defends a need for collective self-determination, a right that has been stripped from Detroiters and Appalachians, disproportionately so for BIPOC in both regions.
Malik Yakini was reluctant to comment on solutions that might benefit Appalachia, as he hasn’t studied the problems the region faces in-depth. However, he did offer some words of wisdom regarding the parallels he saw between Appalachia and Detroit.
“In both cases, it’s incumbent upon people in those communities to organize around themselves. They must find what their interests are and work toward getting those interests met,” he paused for a moment.
“What’s most important in both places is for people to develop an analysis of the system of capitalism so that we can envision something better. That’s something that would be helpful, regardless of where people are.”