Food Justice Task Force reports out on first cycle of “Cook, Eat, Talk”

June 13, 2011

By Adrienne Maree Brown
We at the Food Justice Task Force have now completed the first cycle of Cook Eat Talk community events in Detroit, and they were incredible.
The Task Force was sparked a couple of years ago when a national organization was looking to collaborate with food oriented activists in Detroit. A body of growers, farmers, distributors, educators and community activists came together and developed principles of alignment. It soon became clear that the partnership with the national group wasn’t the path for Detroit, so the group respectfully started working together to birth something that was 100% Detroit in people and practice. The result has been mindblowing.
Doing the six Cook Eat Talk community events wasn’t the original idea. The Task Force put a grant proposal in to the Kresge Foundation that included a workshop series that would spark networks in four parts of the city.  But as the Task Force met, got to know each other and developed shared values around Detroit being a city full of unseen resources, our plans shifted.
First, we developed a shared vision. we wanted to do two things – connect Detroit to healthy local food resources, and help develop an economy of small local businesses providing this healthy local food to the city, so that Detroit’s dollars flow back into the city.
Second, we examined shared principles around Food Justice and Food Sovereignty. We wanted to uplift the Detroit we know, love and are inspired by – not approach it as a city full of victims or abandoned space.
Third, we realized that we needed a committed group to move this work through a first phase so we could learn what was possible. We settled on our membership – ten organizations that range from urban agricultural groups, to Do-It-Yourself maker/creators, to environmental organizations. We settled on these members in order to ensure that we could build clear relationships and practice accountability with each other and the community, which is hard to do when there isn’t a basic promise to stay at the table and execute the work together. We committed.
Finally, we started thinking about how to come into community. The context of this political moment in Detroit is that city keeps looking beyond our city borders for solutions to our apparent scarcity, instead of looking into the soil and people of Detroit to see the true abundance. At this time, we came across an idea – ‘invisible capital’, which spoke to the unseen skills, networks and relationships that can exist and make the difference between success and failure in the business world, and in life. We looked at each other with excitement, and curiosity – what would it look like to map the unseen food justice skills, networks and relationships in Detroit? How much invisible capital does this city have?

That was the foundation for Cook Eat Talk. Rather than come into communities with cookie cutter trainings on food justice, which many of our members could offer in their sleep, we wanted to come in as midwives for food justice networks. We believed that there are people growing food in Detroit, feeding each other, learning how to be healthy without a lot of resources, interested and investing in the local food economy. We just wanted to lift that network up into the light, so more and more Detroiters could access and celebrate it.
Each event would be fairly simple in structure, in our vision. We would get folks together to cook and eat, because that is a building block for any community process. Then we would talk – about the myths and assumptions we hold around food, about the food heroes and heroines in our neighborhoods, and about our visions for a healthy Detroit.
We identified a set of neighborhoods by zipcode, looking at where we knew there was some food based community, where the Task Force partners were doing work and had relationships, and where folks were inviting us to come. We set out to find four places, and ended up with six because folks were so excited by the idea, so ready to have these conversations. The events emerged and grew with time as well.
The work of the Task Force was to coordinate the logistics of the event, develop flyers, anything to support community members. The community members were only responsible for reaching out to their own communities, and bringing folks to the table, welcoming folks into the space, and holding us accountable to doing an event that really worked for their space and people.
In terms of outreach, it‘s been interesting. As soon as folks heard what we were doing, we started getting inquiries from all over the city, not to mention around the country and the world. People from all over Detroit wanted events, and wanted to attend the ones we had scheduled. We saw this as a good problem – Detroit is hungry for food justice.
We made the hard call not to promote the events beyond what community partners were doing, because we saw immediately that the magic of the events was in the community bonding, the pride people felt in a room filled with their neighbors, talking about the most special aspects of their neighborhood. This decision on our parts wasn’t about exclusion, but about allowing the work to root deeply with lifelong Detroiters in the most impacted zipcodes in the city, let the network deepen before it started to spread wide.
We’ve also gone on an arc of learning over the course of the events, learning key aspects of successful events such as:
   the community host beginning and ending the event, really granting permission to the organizers and the participants to be present with each other without doubt or skepticism
   being transparent about where the Task Force is coming from, our vision, and our commitment to keep this work moving
   having a variety of activities for people of all ages and abilities to engage in, so that every person feels truly welcomed in and involved in the process. This included surveys where people wrote and drew their visions for Detroit, related to the People’s Movement Assembly work; surveys on grocery stores that teach people how to look out for expired food, dirty shelves or other signs of unsafe food environments, related to the Good Food Good Jobs campaign; hands on sessions in the kitchen of each space, where folks got to learn how to make their own salad dressings and salads, learn about genetically modified foods and local produce options; open conversations about what is special in each neighborhood, what is special about the food in each zip code; and more.
   documenting the events in a way that people could participate in. Young people especially loved being given a camera and told to document their communities at these events.
   having whole families at each event, so that people were learning about food justice together and could go home and practice together.
   listening more than we talked. We asked questions, but the community was all the content.

We’ve also confirmed that there are thousands of people in Detroit who are taking matters into their own hands, feeding their neighbors, organizing rides to grocery stores, joining emergency food kitchens, community gardens, holding liquor stores accountable for the food they sell. Detroit knows how to feed itself, and many Detroiters understand that there is a potential for economic rebirth that really feeds Detroit, instead of economic growth that displaces and disempowers the city residents.
The next step is developing a plan to implement all the ideas that emerged from these community sessions. Folks want to create business plans, want workshops on media, want to ground truth their neighborhoods, mapping out the healthy and toxic zones in their areas, want to do art projects to uplift and educate their communities, and so much more.
What ties all these exciting ideas together is the shared goal to Just Feed Detroit.