food justice for all.

“What is food? On the surface, it seems to be a simple question, but the answer is difficult and really depends on who you ask. There are those of us who believe that the answer is relative to one's circumstances, and that many people who are being asked the question are biased, ignorant or some combination of both.”

Those are the words of Phil Jones, a longtime Detroit resident, chef and instructor at Operation Able, founder of City Food Community Concepts, and passionate advocate for food equality in the city’s undernourished neighborhoods.

“If food is just anything that can be ingested, then we have no problems, and ‘food deserts’ don’t exist. Please note, I said ‘ingested’ and not necessarily ‘digested.’ Food is everywhere — gas stations, party stores, etc. You can always get something, if only a ‘quarter juice’ or a pack of Ramen noodles. 

For Jones, though, it’s a matter of quality, not quantity.

“If your definition of food has ‘higher’ or ‘different’ standards, then it is a real problem, and there is less food available. Our grocery stores that
remain don’t stock very much fresh, minimally processed food. Not all ‘processed’ food is bad, because processing includes things like making a ham
or canning jams. It is when the food is ‘hyper-processed’ that there are problems. I challenge anyone to find a store where the fresh food outweighs the ‘processed’ stuff.”

That makes Detroit, as Jones puts it, more of a “food swamp” than a food desert. The city has stores, but is sorely lacking those fresh, healthy food resources he’s talking about. In fact, according to 2010 data from the Green Grocer Project, Detroiters spend $200 million a year at grocery stores outside the city limits to help fill that void.

Many believe the root cause of broken food systems in poor and low-income communities is institutionalized racism manifesting as “food oppression” and “food injustice.” In short, that means food and access to food intentionally doesn’t adequately represent the needs of the people.   

The challenge is that eradicating systemic societal issues — from poverty to education to food injustice — can take decades if it ever happens at all.

And though that’s certainly a grim picture, in Detroit, all is not lost. In fact, the industrious spirit that’s inspired generations of Detroiters to challenge the status quo is beginning to surface in the reimagining of the city’s food system.

It’s called “food justice,” which is defined as communities exercising their right to grow, sell and eat healthy food. Food that’s fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals. Ultimately, this has the power to transform local food systems and build healthier, more self-reliant communities.

In Detroit, there’s been an upswing in the food justice movement during the last several years. From cultivating backyard produce plots and small community gardens to developing large-scale urban farms and impactful educational programs, Detroiters like Jones are driving change at the grassroots level — and beyond.

“I am a founding member of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which was formed in 2009 by City Council decree. I have served as chair, vice chair and currently as the chair of the Education and Engagement Committee, which is responsible for just that — and the execution of the annual food summit, Detroit Food.”

In addition to years of service on the Council, he also founded his own organization, City Food Community Concepts, in 2015.

“City Food Community Concepts seeks to redefine and redevelop community by building family wealth and fostering personal transformation through a robust food system supported by place-based programming. Our vision is a sustainable community rooted in a holistic view focused on best practices, economic equality, family, innovation, justice and tradition.” 

The organization operates several programs that fight food injustice in unique and powerful ways.

One example is the Family Nutrition Stabilization pilot program, which is designed to help children maximize their personal potential by following a healthy diet and providing the support to make those diets more easily sustainable.

“The documentable results of these types of engagements go beyond the children, as the long-term successes have a ripple effect in the community as a whole,” says Jones. 

Effectively engaging youth is a recurring theme in the organization’s programming.

“Our focus is on youth as the base for any sustained change to our food system. We use youth to get the messaging out to the public and we encourage growth in the leadership capacity of our participants.”

Another creative approach to achieving those goals is their Good Food Ambassadors program. 

Young people enrolled in the program work to help create and support a stronger local and sustainable food movement in Detroit communities through direct engagements with the public at their “Purchase Points,” which includes grocery stores, farmers markets and other food sources. They establish short- and long-term relationships with the stores, conduct food system reporting, and work closely with stores and community members to raise awareness about the importance of local and sustainable food choices. 

In addition to improving the community, the program also benefits participants, helping them develop important personal and professional skills and exposing them to potential career paths in the food industry.

Jones’s story is a true testament to Detroiters’ resourcefulness and commitment to their communities. Where others simply saw swamps and deserts, he and his colleagues saw an opportunity to help make Detroit healthier from the inside out.

That’s why we should all be grateful this Detroit Lover is here to stay.

“No one is guaranteed smooth sailing through their life no matter where you live. What can be guaranteed is that if you are surrounded by love, whatever you face can be dealt with. I have people and things here that I love — like my Avalon community, this wacky weather, the Detroit soundtrack, the Detroit views, those Detroit flavors, those Detroit sayings — ‘What up, doe?’ comes to mind — those endearing and maddening teams of ours and that look of fear and fascination you get when you tell someone abroad you’re from Detroit. That’s what being a ‘Detroit Lover’ is all about!”