Detroit Food Lab

Words are not just letters strung together; they are vessels for love and fight, heart ache, wisdom, and profound joy by Jess Miller

Words are not just letters strung together; they are vessels for love and fight, heart ache, wisdom, and profound joy,” Devita Davison.

Devita Davison from Detroit Food Labs 

Devita Davison from Detroit Food Labs 

The love for her community and work radiates from Devita Davison as she talks ofthe power that food has as a tool to bring about a just society and economy.

Devita is the Executive Director of FoodLab Detroit, a not-for-profit organisation that represents a diverse community of food businesses and allies working to make good food a sustainable reality for all Detroiters. Devita works with more than 140 food businesses facilitating resources, mentoring, high-quality workshops, field-trips and networking opportunities — all with the goal of cultivating, connecting and catalyzing good food businesses.

Devita spent a few days in Launceston as part of her November tour of Australia talking about the Detroit Food Lab mission to cultivate, connect and catalyse people within a local food economy.

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the one day Food Justice in the Suburbs workshop Devita ran at the UTAS campus. With the added bonus of being offered the chance to share the stage with Devita that evening as part of a panel entitled ‘Feeding change: Creating a culture of food innovation and entrepreneurship in Launceston…I said yes of course.

Globally, food justice advocates are focusing more of their resources not on changing national level food policies, but rather the development of new and more sustainable practices at the grassroots level. Borne not only from frustration at the lack of vision and progress from government sectors. Rather the realisation that things will only change when we collaborate and lead the way at the grassroots level.

This just do it ethos is underpinned by the knowing that it can often be better to seek forgiveness, than ask permission. To do it the other way around can stifle a great project or new idea.

The possibilities and opportunities that locally grown food, and local food businesses have built in Detroit after the collapse of its manufacturing industry was at the heart of all the stories Devita shared. How some of the most blight stricken neighbourhoods, where people stayed inside for frear of crime and the stores shut when the jobs disappeared were powerful.

Stories of how one woman built a vegetable garden to bring people out of their isolation. A garden that reminded people they could grow their own food, while also growing a sense of pride in their suburb. From that little things, big things grew.

Youth run garden and arts spaces. Micro enterprises where kids sold their produce locally, and learnt how to run a business and feed their community.

So many one-woman businesses, yes more often than not it was women, that took a great idea, a recipe and were catalysts for changing what the local community dreamed of achieving. Providing for their family both in resources, and by example.

As Devita showed, it is her skills in story telling (she is the daughter and granddaughter of a preachers), her marketing qualifications and her strong love of her Detroit home that power her to help facilitate these entrepreneurs and community builders. People who understand that food is the tool to building a just food system. A food system that is resilient to change with a community that is building a new future for itself.

A strong community that knows its value.

In Devita’s own words a bit more about FoodLab Detroit:

FoodLab started in January 2011 with a handful of good food entrepreneurs gathered around a kitchen table to talk about how they could support each other and contribute to Detroit’s growing good food movement. Since then, the group has grown in reach and intention. In its first year, FoodLab members hosted a series of gatherings on how to develop their fledgling businesses along good-food principles. In August 2011, five volunteers began to plan FoodLab’s first bootcamp, “Building Your Good Food Business” (now called BASE).

They saw need for a course that provided practical business tools and embraced good-food values. They also wanted to reach out to more entrepreneurs of colour and strengthen relationships with allies. The response to the series was powerful. It was a space where “foodies” (mostly young, mostly white, often new to Detroit) learned alongside generational Detroit residents and food activists (mostly older, mostly people of colour).

Participants built new relationships, strengthened practical business skills, and deepened their understanding of triple-bottom-line business design. They found joy in belonging to a community that put relationships and the planet first, and also understood the day-to-day demands of starting and running a food business.