Detroit Goes to Washington

Q&A with Rep. Stallworth on Strengthening Detroit Voices’ Trip to Washington, D.C.

This September, Fair Food Network’s Strengthening Detroit Voices (SDV) team visited our nation’s capital to meet with policymakers and share firsthand the issues Detroiters face every day accessing healthy food.

SDV is a Fair Food Network initiative that is bringing together Detroit community leaders and organizations to inform public policy by elevating the issues and on-the-ground perspectives surrounding healthy food access. You can learn more about SDV and its partners here.

As SDV leaders returned to Detroit, we caught up with Michigan state representative and Legislative Black Caucus chairman Thomas F. Stallworth III (D-Detroit), who participated in the trip, to hear his reflections on the visit, and what he hopes to take back home to the Motor City.

FFN SDV View from the Hill
SDV partners at the Capitol:
Terrence Hicks (FFN), Heaster Wheeler (Wayne County), Sharlonda Buckman (Detroit Parent Network), Rep. Thomas Stallworth III (MI House of Representatives), Christine Quane (Eastern Market Corporation), Kwamena Mensah (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network)

Much has been written about Detroit’s food system. What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities Detroiters face accessing healthy food?

As I get more involved in this work, I see two main issues impacting access to healthy food. The first is compliance. A recent Detroit Public Radio series on food access in the city found that many food stamp retailers in Detroit failed to provide the basic food items that any parent would need for their children: wheat bread, milk, apples, and good meat. What this means is that citizens using these services have to go to multiple locations to get what they need. If we want to address the issue of access, we have to make sure existing retailers are providing the basic foods Detroiters need.

The second issue is transportation. Many people don’t have the transportation they need to shop at multiple locations. Detroit’s population loss is in large part because we don’t have the services that people need, so they move where they can get them.

As we talk about stabilizing neighborhoods, we need to ensure there is a constellation of schools to support that neighborhood and a comprehensive grocery with meat and fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a primary service that every citizen needs.

You’ve been a part of SDV from its inception. What makes it unique?

DV is a unique mechanism with which we can begin to connect the dots between health and access to high quality food and raise community awareness, so we’re more conscious of what our diet needs to look like and the changes we need to make.

Detroit has some of the highest chronic disease rates in Michigan—hypertension, diabetes, obesity—you name it, we’re off the charts. The only way we’re going to turn that around is to provide access to preventative health care and help people understand that what’s on the end of their fork is important. This requires easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and dairy. You can’t choose healthy food if you don’t have access to it. 

What was your biggest takeaway from SDV’s View from the Hill trip?

I’m relatively new to this issue. I sit on the health policy committee, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about agriculture and access, so this was really an eye-opening learning experience.

Not surprisingly, there is a tremendous amount of sensitivity to and interest in the issues we face in Detroit. While the federal government is not easy to navigate, there are also tremendous resources available that we can and should be leveraging.

What three words would you use to describe your time in DC?

Educational. Challenging—as a legislator, it was a reversal of roles to be on the other side of the table. And rewarding. I was advocating for things that are very important for my constituents.

What message did you want to share with policymakers?

We often think of things in silos, but I’m a person that likes to connect the dots. I would like to come at this with the understanding that we need cooperation between federal, state, and local policymakers to address the food needs of our citizens.

I don’t think anyone challenges that we need to do better in terms of eliminating hunger and ensuring access to high-quality food. But for some reason, we continue to stumble around despite our best efforts. I believe this is because we don’t have the coordinated implementation plans we need. We need to form problem-solving tables that ensure all groups are represented at the table because we each have a role to play. In the absence of this approach, we have a disconnect between intentions and results.

The SDV trip highlighted the importance of continued dialogue between local and state officials with federal department officials and the White House to ensure the programs and funding we construct actually drive the outcomes we want.

What’s up next for SDV?

In addition to connecting our needs with federal resources, there are some immediate priorities that I want address.

First up, I’d like to see the SDV partners work with Henry Ford Health System to launch a pilot in which we use Henry Ford Hospital shuttle buses to help residents across the City get to farmers’ markets that have the Double Up Food Bucks program. This could help low-income families access the fresh fruits and vegetables they need at an affordable level – and support our local farmers at the same time.

Lastly, as a more personal priority, I learned that years ago there was land in my district that was identified as a location for a farmers’ market. We’ve located resources to do a feasibility study to see if we can move forward and launch a farmers’ market to make fruits and vegetables more accessible to our community.

Check out fellow SDV delegate Melinda Clynes’ reflections on the trip as part of her coverage of food and poverty issues on behalf of Gleaners Community Food Bank.