We’re excited to introduce you to our speakers for the 2016 Change Food Fest through a series of personal Q&A’s. Today we are talking with Devita Davison, Director of Marketing & Communications at FoodLab Detroit.
Devita Davison is the Director of Marketing & Communications at FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit organization that works to provide entrepreneurs with technical assistance, workshops, resources and the skills they need to start and grow a strong values-based food business.
FoodLab is committed to serving low-resourced entrepreneurs of color and sees good food entrepreneurship as a way to build power and resilience for traditionally marginalized people and communities and promote environmental sustainability through business practices and civic engagement by entrepreneurs.
Tell us a little about FoodLab Detroit and what you’re working on.
FoodLab Detroit is transforming Detroit’s local food economy by supporting a diverse community of food businesses and allies working to make good food a sustainable reality for all Detroiters.
FoodLab Detroit is a membership-based network of over 200 good food businesses committed to growing triple-bottom-line food businesses. Forward-thinking food businesses join FoodLab Detroit because they want to rethink failed economic systems, share innovations and work together to build a more equitable, vibrant and delicious Detroit.
At FoodLab, 75% of our member businesses are women-owned and 63% of our member businesses are owned by entrepreneurs of color. We strongly believe in leveling the playing field for all entrepreneurs – particularly women and people of color because for far too long, solutions for the challenges underserved communities face have been drawn up by those who haven’t lived the problem firsthand.
We believe that when entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds build impact companies with new capital, there’s great potential and opportunity for communities that have been, for too long, left out of the invocation culture, and yet perhaps could benefit from it the most.
Through our efforts we hope to expand economic opportunities for financially excluded and impact-driven minority food entrepreneurs.
You’ve oriented your FoodLab project in Detroit to support food entrepreneurs with operations and business maturity. Why is this important?
In its early stages, FoodLab provided space for business people to connect and discuss the challenges of running a business with “good food” values. Despite tremendous energy around entrepreneurship in the city, before FoodLab, many food entrepreneurs felt adrift. They wanted to be profitable, but were primarily motivated to create businesses for social purposes: to employ youth, provide families access to healthy and affordable food or to support local growers.
Currently, the local business development culture pushes entrepreneurs to think about growing their businesses financially before considering any of these other goals. When a new food establishment opens in an underserved community, economic development practitioners and other policymakers typically measure success in terms of square feet of retail and number of jobs created. These measurements are used as proxies to describe the impact of food retail on a community.
In this analysis, neighborhood-based retailers will always be seen as less competitive than their full-service competitors because they offer fewer jobs and have smaller footprints. Yet these tangible, cumulative indicators fail to describe the broader economic, social and environmental context in which good food businesses operate.
A warm embrace of large corporate supermarkets in poor areas does not bridge gaps to healthy food. These retailers do not have deep connections in communities, nor do they tend to understand their needs. Alternative models do exist to address the health and lifestyle issues related to food deserts and poverty. At FoodLab, we’re working to strengthen the businesses in our community because we know that the business practices of these good retailers will have broad impacts on food access, workplace conditions and a healthy environment in Detroit.
What is the real truth about food deserts? Are they as abundant and unique as rumor holds? What is needed to turn them around?
The use of the phrase ‘food desert’ creates a set of problems. More and more, this term is being used to justify the existence of large corporate grocery chains in poor communities. ‘Food desert’ identifies places for corporate America to sell cheap, off brand food to our community.
This term has been thrown around by the USDA, anti-hunger advocates and large supermarkets like Wal-Mart to explain their existence in communities facing food hardship, and ultimately those same corporate chains are receiving subsidies that aren’t available to smaller, local entrepreneurs. The arrival of these retailers that are supposed to help the community many times help to set the stage for gentrification, as well as not paying a living wage job to residents, if the jobs are even available to them at all.
The recent closing of a Walmart in Alabama also exemplifies why supermarkets should be supplementary, not the primary sources for nutritious food to sustain a community. The city of Fairfield, Alabama —which is 95% African-American—depended on Walmart for about 40% of its sales tax revenue.
There is no doubt that many impoverished communities need access to healthy, quality, culturally relevant food. But it ought to be fresh food that will support our local farmers who are also suffering from a broken food system, and nourish the bellies of our babies while simultaneously stimulating economic and community development.
What do you see as one of the most pressing problems in the food space and what can or is being done about it?
Again back to the term ‘food desert’. The term is a pressing problem because it masks the real harm of the U.S. corporate controlled food system by suppressing the ability of community entrepreneurs to develop and finance scalable community solutions. The danger of accepting the food desert philosophy is that it masks the real problem of the corporate controlled food system: poverty and hunger.
New research shows the stresses of being poor correlate to poor health. Poverty itself makes people ill, with stress causing inflammation in the bodies of low-income people, leading to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and other disease. This reality highlights the need to fight economic inequality in order to improve the lives of those plagued by it.
Further, some grocery store chains such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are often
seen as anchors for gentrification, leading to property value increases and “revitalization” that results in the displacement of low-income families of color.
We cannot solely rely on large corporations to “fix” our current food predicament, a predicament that they intentionally created. We must analyze and utilize our current community resources to create innovative and just solutions.
Alternative programs do exist to address the health and lifestyle issues related to food deserts and poverty. Take, for example, the efforts of urban farmers of color to improve food access for their communities through the establishment of farmers’ markets and community agriculture initiatives.
Look at the African-American residents of Greensboro, North Carolina, home to 17 areas similar to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture would define a food desert—they
reinvented their environment when the Winn-Dixie supermarket closed and the city failed to replace it through grassroots fundraising, city grants, and foundation loans. Community members also formed a $2 million Renaissance Community Co-Op dedicated to providing affordable healthy food and good worker wages.
When we think about good food eating, we often promote “go local.” When you promote good food businesses, do you promote the same principles? Why or why not?
It is challenging for many to access and afford food that is not only healthy but also produced in a manner that respects animals and the environment and supports economic viability for all those along the way from farm to table. The implications of this challenge are evident not only to those unable to access healthy and affordable food, but also to those concerned about public health and local economic development who are working to build a new “Good Food” system. We define “Good Food” as one that makes healthy, green, fair, affordable food an everyday reality in every community.
What else can we expect to see from FoodLab Detroit in the next few years?
As FoodLab grows, we are looking to recast the role of food businesses in terms of a broader set of community values. We aim to deepen our impact by documenting and sharing tools and systems to help translate this dialogue and desire into practice. Many FoodLab members, for instance, are interested in increasing the amount of raw ingredients purchased from local and sustainable growers. Others are interested in reducing food waste, water use, or energy used to produce their food product. Some would like to better understand the link between the financial health of their business and the well-being of their employees.
To help with these goals, FoodLab will be bringing together a cohort of innovative leaders in the FoodLab community seeking to advance systemic solutions for health equity by transforming the local food system. Over the next year, we aim to invest more intentionally in development of people and grow a network of food entrepreneurs who will become leaders in the field, and who will mobilize others in the FoodLab community to build a more equitable, community-driven food system.
How can we learn more about your work?
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 12th and 13th, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community. Follow the action at #CFFest2016!