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‘Food Is Political. It’s a Part of Our DNA.’

Devita Davison, executive director of FoodLab Detroit, has long advocated for an equitable and sustainable restaurant industry. She still sees a lot of work to do.

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the continuously volatile political environment have centered Americans’ focus on vast fissures in systems of government, capitalism, and inequality. Throughout the spring and summer, it spurred grassroots activism and uprisings calling for racial justice across the country. Every industry — but especially the food industry — has been impacted by these upheavals. Businesses are closing at a high rate due to diminished income. Service workers have lost their jobs or are put in harm’s way to make ends meet. And those strains are sparking a reckoning that’s challenging past systems for how businesses operated and treated their staff. For many people in the restaurant world observing the social and economic climate of the last few months, this moment feels pivotal. Could a better food system be on the horizon?

Devita Davison is an activist and executive director of FoodLab Detroit, an organization established to support independent food businesses while exploring models that create a more equitable and sustainable environment for employees, producers, and the people in the community. A native of one of the Blackest cities in America, with deep roots in activism and food sovereignty, Davison has the benefit of a long perspective on food movements and economies. Last year, based on a series of talks with women working in Detroit’s dining scene, FoodLab published A Seat at the Table, a solutions-based guide to building a better food industry. In 2020, the organization also launched a fellowship program to explore opportunities for a radically different way of eating and providing hospitality.

Eater spoke with Davison about what she sees as the primary issues in the food industry in Detroit and beyond right now, and whether she thinks this is the moment in history when a new, more equitable system will emerge as a dominant vision for the restaurant world. She also touches on what, for some reason, continues to be a sensitive subject for some: Is food political? Spoiler: It always has been.

Eater: Where are some of the issues you see in the restaurant world right now, and are there opportunities to change them?

Devita Davison: We can’t have a conversation about restaurants in a bubble. We have to think about it as an ecosystem. You can’t talk about reimagining the [restaurant industry] without thinking about how landlords and real estate play such a huge part. Rents are so exorbitant, which is one of the reasons why restaurants struggle just to break even sometimes. If we’re really going to think about what transformation and opportunity look like, what does it look like within the context of having spaces that restaurateurs and chefs could afford? Does that model look like ownership [or] cooperative ownership? What does it look like to be able to be successful? Do restaurants have to be brick and mortar? What does “restauranting” mean outside of the walls of a brick-and-mortar restaurant?

You can’t talk about restaurants [without thinking about] who gets attention and who doesn’t. You have to think about providing restaurateurs and chefs with the ability to democratize narratives of storytelling. Who gets to tell that story and how would a chef or restaurant tell the story?

Lastly, when we see the growth of some of these restaurants, especially within the last two or three years, you have to look at where funding is coming from. A lot is coming from private equity firms, which are basically turning restaurants into short-term investment tools. It is those people that are causing the most harm in our communities, especially when they partner with developers and [become] a part of a strategy for this new luxury high-rise that’s going into communities. They’re not taking the community into consideration. The mindset is that if it is not profitable, it does not belong in this community.

How do small restaurants in Detroit fight back against that during a pandemic and a challenging economy right now? How are we going to make sure that there are still independent restaurants at the end of this that are working toward more ethical models and doing things better for their workers?

It’s complicated. Because by the time we see an artisanal coffee shop or farm-to-table restaurant or an Italian mercado, or even Whole Foods, for that matter, enter in some of these neighborhoods in the city of Detroit, we need to understand that there were policies already put in place behind the scenes long before you saw that development in your community.

We can now see the transformation of Midtown, and the gentrification of Midtown, or, for that matter, the entire 7.2 square miles of Greater Downtown, including Midtown, Woodbridge, Corktown, Eastern Market, Downtown. Yes, we see it now. But [what] we see now was in the works 15 [or] 20 years ago.

The reason why I mention this as you talk about the role of restaurateurs is [that] restaurateurs should not bear this burden alone. It takes active participation and involvement with the community. If you value locally owned restaurants, if you value the opportunity for your neighbors to open up small businesses in your neighborhood, [then] you have to value and understand how real estate and capital works. And that is influenced by the laws and policies we vote for.

A lot of folks misunderstand how the cycle and the process of gentrification works. Should I blame, fight, and point the finger at a chef or a restaurateur who’s a part of a development project that the city of Detroit has enticed and lured, who was given developer tax abatements and developer subsidies? Should I blame the restaurateur for that? Or should we be checking the developer? Or should we be checking the city council? Or the mayor? Why is it that this developer and his project have been subsidized, but every day, I’m struggling and fighting for BIPOC owners to get access to the capital that they need, so that they can open up their own restaurants in their communities and neighborhoods?

I don’t really like the [phrase] social distancing. I prefer physical distancing, because we’re physically distancing ourselves from one another so that we can all be safe and fight this pandemic. I don’t think we’re socially distancing ourselves. We’re finding new ways to use technology to bring us even closer together. But here’s the thing: The phenomenon around physical distancing has been something that Black, Indigenous, and people of color business owners have been dealing with since the violent precision of housing policies that redlined and segregated our communities from one another. For decades, we’ve been physically distanced from one another.

When I think about what it looks like in five and 10 years and how we sustain these restaurants and our neighborhoods and our communities… it’s going to be a competition for resources. So, how do we make sure that we value the restaurant, the deli, the takeout spot, the delivery spot, just as much as we value NoHo Hospitality coming downtown and being a part of the Shinola Hotel? And value them so much that we are able to give them some tax abatements, some credits, some resources. Because they’re caregivers of our community. They’re hiring some of the most vulnerable workers: Folks who may not have a license and can’t drive; people who may be returning citizens; people who are elderly and want to go to work and people who are disabled and want to live a couple of blocks from the place they work. How are we ensuring that they get the same amount of resources? That’s what I’m thinking.

Where do you see the Detroit community and its restaurant industry fitting into the world of politics and advocacy?

I do believe — and the work of FoodLab [believes] — that yes, you can begin to cultivate, nourish, and provide an education through generations of cooks and chefs who actually know that there is a possibility that we can educate a collective group of people or customers beyond just acclamations and awards.

Here’s the thing. You’re talking to someone who is a native Detroiter, born and raised, an African-American woman where food has always been political. You’re talking to someone who is the manifestation of the dreams of her ancestors, as we laid one of our elders to rest yesterday: John Lewis.

You think about how he got his start as an organizer, as an activist in his group, SNCC, which was a group of college students who performed sit-ins. Where did they do their sit-ins? At lunch counters where they weren’t allowed to sit and order. And it was those students who were just like, “What we’re going to do is we’re going to take a place like a lunch counter, and this is where we are going to take the fight.” So, of course, I think food is political. It’s a part of our DNA.

Here in Detroit, oh, my god. Of course. Our food is wrapped up into the radicalization of a food movement, starting with the Gardening Angels that was started by a group of elders who didn’t have the language — that didn’t understand urban agriculture at this time — [that didn’t know] Detroit was going to be the epicenter. They just knew that there were hungry babies and hungry families, and they knew how to grow food.

Gardening Angels started growing food in vacant lots and side lots and in their backyards. Coleman Young [Detroit’s first Black mayor] actually saw this happening and was like, “Wait a minute. The elders are onto something. How can the city begin to provide them with the resources to grow and develop this program?” Then, he started the Farm-A-Lot Program for the city of Detroit. He provided tools and resources and seeds to Detroiters so that they can grow their own food. And now you have the DBCFSN (Detroit Black Community Food Security Network) with Malik Yakini and the whole organization is sitting with farms on what, seven acres. They’re now building a grocery store cooperative, and that goes hand in hand with the workers that Mama Jerry Hebron is doing, which goes hand in hand with the work that the Keep Growing Detroit team is doing. So, food in Detroit has always been political, so much so that the goal in Detroit is food sovereignty. We want to control the food that we grow and ensure that it stays in Detroit.

That’s why I’m just baffled that some can say that food is not political when it’s tied to every policy that you can imagine. You can’t talk about climate change without talking about food. You can’t talk about immigration without talking about food. It is at the intersection of everything. I think sometimes the best way to explain policy and the importance of good policy is to describe it through the context and through the lens of food.

Based on what you’ve observed during this crisis, do you think that restaurant workers or people who own restaurants are going to become more instrumental in effecting actual policy change?

[In the past few months,] the immediate thing that [the industry] thought about was that we need assistance from the federal government to help save our industry. Makes sense. Absolutely. If they’re saving the airline industry, if they’re saving the cruise industry, lobby the federal government. Then [Tom] Colicchio goes on to say that they formed the Independent Restaurant [Coalition] almost overnight: They started calling their friends in PR, hired a lobbying firm, hired a communications firm, and voila! Overnight! They had this group that was altogether that was going to be lobbying to save independent restaurants. And I thought to myself, well, damn. Don’t tell me what they can’t do. Because they have the resources to become politically active.

But what scares me is they began to center their activism around Paycheck Protection Program dollars: How can we begin to bend and stretch and change PPP to ensure that we are included? The problem is that those who are clamoring for PPP adjustments for bailouts — the reason that they allowed this was because they were the ones that were going to reap the rewards of this multibillion-dollar transfer of money like we’ve never seen before.

What scares me is they’re lobbying for this transfer of dollars, this transfer of power, this transfer of additional wealth to a small number of people that is not going to impact their workers. This is the owner class. These are the people who actually own a restaurant lobbying to make their food, to maintain their power.

They’re not lobbying on the behalf of the industry to save the most vulnerable — the workers. So, yes, I do see them organizing, but I don’t see the organizing for the advancement, care, and maintenance of restaurant workers. I see them becoming more politically active, but they’re doing so for their own enrichment, and that’s the scary part to me.

Are you hopeful for the future at this point in time?

I think about that all of the time: Am I hopeful? I see fantastic stories [about] chefs leaning into a tried-and-true practice that African Americans have relied on since we were brought to this country as slaves — and that tool is mutual aid and solidarity. Every time I see chefs leaning into mutual aid and solidarity around using their kitchens and their spaces to cook for our most vulnerable populations, they are taking care of homeless communities, they are feeding the poor, they are feeding frontline workers, they are literally putting their bodies on the line, and I think, “Oh, my god.” Chefs are doing what they do best, and that is feeding people. Every time I talk with our cohort members, it’s, “Oh, my god, change is going to happen.”

But every time I feel this sense of hopefulness and joy, I also read a story about a freaking customer who will just not put on a goddamn mask, who will go into a restaurant and curse out a bartender or front-of-house worker and be pissed that they can’t do what they want to do in this space. I’m reminded of the fact that certain people in this country have always used and occupied restaurant spaces as a manifestation of their privilege. A part of that is treating people any damn way you feel like. And that’s unacceptable to me.

Then my heart hardens because, in order for this restaurant industry to change, it cannot just be workers. It can’t just be restaurateurs. The public also has to be a part of this change. We can’t begin to talk about dismantling or transforming unless there are changes along the supply chain, unless there are changes within that ecosystem itself. And that ecosystem is so big.

I think that we will be influenced by some restaurateurs who want to do better. But what I’m hoping is that they set the standard, that they are the ones that are looked up to, and the people that don’t live up to these expectations will be the ones who will be shamed.

And the restaurateurs who do change, who are a part of this restauranting at the intersection of people and planet as well as profit, they’ll be the ones setting the bar. I think I’ll see that in my lifetime, as opposed to a true transformation of the entire industry. That’s the only thing I can hope for at this time, is to continue to surround myself with those individuals who are trying to do the right thing, and they become a part of my tribe. They are part of my community. These are the people I look to, the people I support, the folks who I will spend my money on every day. Those are the people I who evangelize on their behalf.

Rosa María Zamarrón is a Detroit-based documentary and portrait photographer.

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