Food power! An interview with Devita Davison, who says whoever controls the food will control the rebuilding of Detroit


Devita Davison


Devita: What brought me back to the city of Detroit is, I’m a Detroiter. I was born and raised in the city of Detroit. Everything that I am and everything that I will be I really do owe to this city, and the folks who poured so much into me. There is sometimes a narrative that is being told, particularly today, and I have to say this, is that I had a very visceral reaction to
  a speech our president gave recently, that Detroit, along with other inner cities, were affiliated with crime and violence, when that is not the narrative when you’re on the ground in communities and cities like Detroit, that happens on a day-to-day basis.
Pamela Hilliard Owens: Right.
The work that I do here in Detroit, now that I’m back is that I am the executive director of a nonprofit organization called FoodLab Detroit. With the support of funders, what FoodLab Detroit does is we work with now over 250 locally owned businesses in the city of Detroit, helping these entrepreneurs. Creating a platform to empower – I don’t use the word help – empower these entrepreneurs .
PHO: Empower, exactly.
Devita: .. To start, launch and scale healthy food businesses in their neighborhood and so I start with what I do but the reason why I do it is because it is so important that entrepreneurs – community members in Detroit – be a part of telling the story, the narrative, as we see the revitalization that’s happening
   in Detroit. They need to see themselves a part of this revitalization and they need to be empowered to advocate and have agency to tell their story through their own voice and so, even though I work with starting and developing businesses, I really consider myself an activist. Someone who empowers our members to tell their own story.
Devita: [As for my personal story], I thought I had achieved a level of success in New York – eighteen years, worked for two big brands, marketing executive, took the buyout. I bought my first home in Long Island, in Nassau County, in a beautiful maritime community called South Freeport.
  All that changed in October in 2012 when hurricane Sandy hit the east coast …
Pam: Right.
Devita: … And as a result of being located in that beautiful maritime community, in between two canals – the Hudson and Whitecliff, which both fed out to the Long Island sound and the Long Island sound fed out to the Atlantic ocean – you can imagine what happened.
  When the Atlantic ocean rose … That hurricane hit … Nine feet of water, as a result, ran through my home. I was up in the attic for about two days
  waiting for the waters to recede so I could evacuate my community. I left New York with nothing after eighteen years of accumulating, what I thought was a level of success based upon those tactile items that I accrued – car, home, a little bit of savings and all of the accoutrements that come with the trappings of what we call success …
  The lord giveth, the lord taketh away.
PHO: Right.
Devita: So I came back to Detroit – my hometown and did not know what I was going to do. I had no intentions of really staying in Detroit. I did not have a real, deep connection, but I knew something was happening and I think after three days of sitting on my mother’s couch and my father’s couch, I remember something that my mother said to me that sticks to with me, even to this day. My mom said to me “Devita, the lord did not send the waters to drown you, he sent the waters to move you.
  It is up to you to find out why you’re back here in the city of Detroit.”
  And I now have the privilege and the honor of running this amazing organization. Foodlab started in 2011.
  Food Lab started with this very premise, as seven entrepreneurs sat around a kitchen table in 2011. The government ain’t going to save us.
  The federal government is not, and the city is not. Food Lab was started by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. To provide a support to each other to figure out how we gonna do this thing.
  So, it’s with that passion that our members started businesses. That was in 2011. Five entrepreneurs sitting around a kitchen table. Food Lab is now a 501c non-profit organization. We’ve got 240 locally owned businesses a part of our community.
PHO: You keep saying this word, and the word that keeps coming up is “community”.
Devita: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. Community is imperative. I tell folks all the time, there is a proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a village to start a business. And Food Lab Detroit, is unapologetically focused on food businesses. We feel like, if we focus on food businesses number 1, we can be an industry expert in that particular category. We also know that food is so intersectional that it really addresses a lot of things. Food businesses. It addresses the need to have healthy food access in traditionally marginalized communities. We talk about economic development and community development.
  Because, here’s the thing, food serves as a catalyst for other development to follow. If you look at, and I had the opportunity to be in New York city where you see this happen, I saw food being used as a conduit to reshape a neighborhood. I saw coffee shops open in SOHO. I saw little farm-to-table restaurants open. I saw how food was used to change an entire community. Cause, I’ve got to tell you, once you start to create that activity, once you start to create amazing places to eat and drink around conviviality. It’s not only about healthy food access at Food Lab, it’s also about creating retail where folks feel welcome. Where folks can come, and be, and have a drink of coffee, and have a meeting, and some place to go. It’s about job creation. We know Detroiters hire Detroiters. So, food sits at this intersection. That is so important to us.
  I knew coming in to Food Lab that entrepreneurs need a couple of things. This is from my experience. Entrepreneurs need, yes access to capital. That’s a barrier for folks who don’t have money to start a business. Capital is important. Not only capital in a financial sense, but capital in terms of the social sense. Social capital is also needed. People do business with who they know. So, as you are a part of a community of like minded entrepreneurs, think about all of the relationships that are being built.
  Detroit has been labeled as a food desert. I think the labeling and the defining of food deserts all across the country was done strategically. I think that it was done strategically because once a community was labeled as a food desert, meaning that there was not access to healthy food … You hear the word desert though, you think it’s like devoid of any food. Like it’s barren. Like you don’t have anything.
  So I think that label was put on so many communities and neighborhoods, particularly rural and black and brown communities, so that the solution to food deserts were based upon this economic model. This economic methodology that, “Oh, this is labeled as a food desert. So the only thing we have to do is build a grocery store in that community and that solves the problem.” As if the problem was economic based, right? As if the problem was only because they didn’t have a grocery store in that area, therefore they were lacking access to healthy food. No, that’s not it at all, and I don’t even like that approach.
  The reason why I don’t like that approach is because when folks look at healthy, or not having access to healthy food, it is not the reason why there isn’t any healthy food. My question is why aren’t you looking at it from a lens of poverty? Healthy food, food access, whatever stems from a much larger problem.
  And so there’s a couple of things I know about healthy food access in the city of Detroit. I know this much. I know that probably 40% of our children in the city of Detroit and 70% of our adults in the city of Detroit, they suffer for lack of healthy food and as a result they’re overweight or obese. I know that.
  I also know that as a result of being overweight or obese, folks that are black and brown also suffer from what we call diet-related diseases. That’s your high blood pressure, your hypertension, your diabetes which leads to death. Let’s just be clear about that.
  I also know that folks in the city of Detroit, in many communities, live closer to a gas station or party store where some folks in Detroit shop than they do to a healthy food outlet where they have access to healthy foods and vegetables. And then there’s one thing that I know for sure, is that you can find high quality produce, fruits and vegetables, in our suburbs more readily than you can find in the inner city. That’s a problem. Why is it plentiful in the suburbs, but not plentiful in the inner city?
  So in many cases, we see the disparities that happens, and this is why it is important. For those folks who are part of, or challenged by the problem … If it is African Americans, if it is our Latino brothers and sisters, our Middle Eastern brothers, the black and brown folks who are suffering as a result of not having access to healthy food in their communities, shouldn’t they be a part of the solution as well?
Pamela Hilliard Owens is CEO of Writing It Right For You. This is an edited transcript of an interview she did for her weekly podcast “YB2C Live.”



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