Working Together for Better Food and Better Food Availability in Detroit

OPINION--I recently joined other Detroiters on Capitol Hill to talk about food issues, establish relationships with the administration and legislators, and share the impressive progress and remaining challenges around food systems work in Detroit.

I was honored to be part of the “Strengthening Detroit Voices” delegation pulled together by Fair Food Network, a national nonprofit identifying solutions to making sure all people have access to healthy, sustainably grown food.

Lucky for Michigan, Fair Food Network is headquartered in Ann Arbor, and Detroit has been the proving grounds for many of the organization’s pilot programs, including the hugely successful Double Up Food Bucks program that has more low-income folks leveraging their Bridge Card (Michigan’s EBT card for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, benefits) to buy healthy, locally grown produce.

Our group was made up 13 astounding individuals who care about food for varying reasons and view food issues from different vantage points: health and wellness, education (because we all know hungry or undernourished children can’t succeed in school), social justice, urban agriculture, emergency food distribution, farmers’ markets, and local and state government.

As we met with eager listeners from the USDA and from legislators’ offices, we let them know that we’re coming at Detroit’s food challenges from many different angles, but with a united front.

Our assembly included Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Henry Ford Health Systems (and former Surgeon General of Michigan); Sharlonda Buckman, Detroit Parent Network; Kwamena Mensah, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network; Christine Quane, Eastern Market Corporation; Representative Thomas Stallworth III, Michigan House of Representatives; Heaster Wheeler, Wayne County; Ponsella Hardaway, MOSES; and leaders and advisors from Fair Food Network.

Together, we brought the voice of low-income people who struggle with food insecurity and food access to the conference table to better inform our Washington movers and shakers about Detroit issues and how we might best, together, partner in solving the tough food systems’ problems of our city.

And what we heard back was good news.

The USDA is already onboard in helping both Detroiters and Michigan farmers come together for better community health outcomes and a better farm economy. Joani Walsh, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, welcomed the opportunity to gather our collective thoughts as she strategizes on how to best support Detroit’s recovery efforts.

Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) immediately recognized the challenges Detroit faces, noting, “You even have a steeper climb than in other places.” With a background as a farmer and small business owner, her interests lie in increasing access to healthy food, including farm to school programs.

Representative John Dingell (D-MI) praised the good work of the group and vowed to help preserve SNAP funding as a critical part of our nation’s safety net. “What you are doing, if you do nothing else, is helping people understand that they have to do something here [in Washington] to take care of the people who have no means of taking care of themselves,” said Dingell.

Dingell, the longest currently serving member in the history of U.S. Congress, has long been a proponent of food stamps and other programs that help citizens through hard times.

In Representative Gary Peters office, we met with staffer Cincilla Grant, and had a productive discussion around the pros and cons of putting restrictions on food that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

The Strengthening Detroit Voices coalition knowledgably weighed in on this debate. Dr. Kimberlydawn Wisdom, senior vice president of community health and equity and chief wellness officer at Henry Ford Health Systems, said, “What’s important is to drive people to healthy behaviors, drive them to do the right things, but not limit their choices.”

Dr. Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of Fair Food Network, said that incentivizing works better than restrictions, noting that 85 percent of Double Up Food Bucks users are eating more fruits and vegetables because of the incentive.

In our meeting with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), she stressed that her best way to help Detroit was through chairing the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry – the group behind the Farm Bill, a bundle of legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy.

As funding for SNAP, SNAP outreach, and nutrition education are tied up in the Farm Bill, Stabenow’s voice needs to reflect the reality of folks who struggle with not enough good food to eat. In looking for ways to avoid partisanship around food issues, she wants to identify more ways for people to grow and produce their own food, “moving the power back to families in neighborhoods and schools.”

She said that there is an ongoing effort in Washington to help Detroit and that food systems work, including urban farming, expanding local food hubs, community gardening, and value-added production (turning fruit and vegetables into products like jam or salsa) is part of the answer. “I talk to folks about how THIS is part of Detroit’s comeback.”

With a united voice around helping Detroiters create a more sustainable food system – where folks on the fringes, including vulnerable children, can have healthy food available to them regularly – I left our meetings feeling more hopeful that there were so many smart people in Detroit and in DC really “getting it.”

But that high didn’t last long. As I travelled home to Michigan, the House pushed through a bill that would cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years. The bill includes other restrictions and time limits and is projected to dump four million people from the program in just the first year.

Will the bill pass through the Senate? Not likely. But it’s disheartening that while many legislators are understanding of the plight of poor and unemployed people and their children, a significant number don’t see the simple truth: all people, no matter how limited their resources, need to eat.

I look forward to continuing my work with the Strengthening Detroit Voices project, on the ground, here in Detroit. I will keep learning from my colleagues, strategizing around creative solutions to healthy food access, and educating national policymakers on how we’re helping Detroiters nourish their families with nutritious food.

Editors Note: Melinda Clynes was invited to join the Strengthening Detroit Voices delegation as a journalist who covers food and poverty issues and on behalf of Gleaners Community Food Bank where she is currently documenting the lives of five individuals and families struggling with food issues as part of the Strengthening Detroit Voices project.


Support your local food movement! Volunteer at a community garden or food pantry, sponsor a healthy food drive, or participate in the local dialogue around food systems change (Detroit Food Policy Council is a great place to start).

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