A Black-Led Food Co-op Grows in Detroit
January 23, 2019
Author: Brian Allnut
Now, after years of teaching and serving as a principal in Detroit schools, helping lead the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) and starting D Town Farm on the city’s west side, Yakini and DBCFSN are planning a 34,000-square-foot food co-op, event space, and commercial kitchens in Detroit’s North End neighborhood. The project could serve as a proof-of-concept for the ability of co-ops to build wealth, create food security, and drive investment in underserved communities.
The project, which is called the Detroit Food Commons and contains the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, builds on a tradition of African-American business cooperatives that were championed by the likes of W.E.B. Dubois as tools for building economic and ultimately political power. Following slavery, African Americans formed co-ops for things like credit and farming to survive under a segregated and exploitative system. Unlike other businesses, co-ops are jointly owned enterprises, focused more on meeting collective needs than turning profits, although profit or “surplus” as it’s sometimes called is necessary to exist in a capitalist system. At the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, each owner will get one vote, creating equality between owners, at least in theory.
Additionally, the Detroit Food Commons possesses what Jean Chorazyczewski, a program director for the Fair Food Network, terms an “ambitious vision” that makes it appealing to foundations looking to drive change and could help it succeed at a time when other co-ops are struggling. Today, many are based on a model that was established in the 60s and 70s in which co-ops found a competitive advantage offering healthy, organic food. During the last few years, large grocery stores have moved into the organic sector, offering competitive prices and cutting into co-op profits, causing some long-established enterprises to close. One pitfall the Detroit People’s Food Co-op wants to avoid is the practice of giving discounts to members at the register, something Yakini says, “(is) giving away profit before you know if the store is profitable.” Instead, member-owners will receive periodic discounts and an equity-share at the end of the year.
To remain competitive, co-ops have had to re-evaluate how they attract customers. The Detroit Food Commons hopes to establish itself as a destination for “hyper-local” produce and offerings from local food businesses, as well as hosting events. It also plans to draw income from its commercial kitchens. The co-op’s position near a major freeway and directly on Woodward Avenue—a major road that connects downtown Detroit with the wealthy suburbs of Oakland County— might also help. It could benefit from the boom in Detroit’s downtown and Cass Corridor neighborhoods while also serving residents of the predominantly black areas of the city outside downtown.
“One of the challenges we’re faced with is that the neighborhood is changing,” Yakini says. “And co-ops, no matter how thoughtful we are, help to spur gentrification. And so, we’re thinking about ways that we can circulate wealth within the existing community.” They’re also trying to make themselves more accessible to historical residents by rewriting some of the rules of the co-op playbook, offering what they call “clean conventional” products, which will make up 25 percent of the store. They’re coming up with their own standards for these more affordable foods that will exclude ingredients like BHT and artificial colors, while also accounting for other things like labor practices.
Although connecting with black Detroiters is a priority, Yakini makes clear that the goal is to create a welcoming environment. “That’s kind of a delicate balance that we’re walking because we definitely believe in black self-determination and black leadership and this is black-led … And the white people who are working with us—I think for the most part—have an awareness of the racial dynamic and the need for black leadership, and are trying to function in a way that helps promote that. But we don’t want to frame it in such a way that everybody doesn’t feel welcome to shop there.”
First published by City Lab, on January 21, 2019.