Welfare Politics: Is Urban Farming the Answer?

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    Mayor Dave Bing

    Starting Oct. 1, an estimated 12,000 families will be off the State of Michigan’s welfare rolls because Lansing is saying it must do budget cuts and we must live within our means in a tough economy. So the state moved to put a stricter four-year limit on cash welfare benefits saying it will grant exemption to those with disabilities who can’t work, relatives of a disabled spouse or child, and those who are 65 and older and are not receiving Social Security or other benefits.

    Advocates for the poor and vulnerable say that is an excuse because the “least of these” are often not part of the agenda of government in the first place. Which ever side you are on in this debate, one thing is clear: Detroit is expected to account for almost half of the estimated 12,000 welfare recipients who will no longer receive benefits from the state. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing told an audience of students, faculty and business leaders at Wayne County Community College District downtown campus last week that the city is putting together a contingency plan — working to locate grants — that could aid those living in the city who would no longer be receiving welfare benefits, among other things.

    Notwithstanding, the politics of welfare and who gets what has catapulted urban farming to the center of discussions of survival in this tough economy.

    Is urban farming the answer to an economy in Detroit that has left some jobless, homeless and others with no other means to make a living for their families?

    Malik Yakini, a longtime Detroit advocate, entrepreneur, educator and pioneer of Africancentered education, said while urban farming is not the whole answer because “the situation we face is a very complex situation, it is part of the answer for the economy we are dealing with.” Yakini, whose brainchild, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), has caught the attention of students from area colleges, including the University of Michigan who are studying models of transformation in urban centers like Detroit, said urban farming is critical for Detroit’s economic survival at this time.

    “Food economy is the first economy of every society,” Yakini said. “If we are able to provide a significant amount of money from the food we produce, it can stimulate the economy because of the potential to hire more people to work on urban farming.”

    What Yakini is doing is becoming a template for sustenance and survival because “in order to solve our problems we have to have a multifaceted approach.”

    That approach has led Yakini and his staff to establish D-Town, a four-acre organic farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park, which has become the site of visits from college students, residents politicsand others who see urban farming as being under-utilized.

    “So far the response to the produce has been very good because people like the idea of fresh produce,” Yakini said.

    However, the response in terms of active participation is not as strong as he would like it to be among African Americans because agriculture is identified with slavery and sharecropping, even though the D-Town farm is an act of self-reliance.

    This past weekend, D-Town had its Harvest Festival showcasing organic vegetable plots, beehives, hoop houses for year- round food production and a compost operation. The event also provided a playground for children who visited the farm with their families.

    “It’s one of our largest events,” Yakini said. “It’s a consciousness raising activity that benefits the community in terms of the cooking demonstrations we have. We teach people how to prepare fresh vegetables.”

    Despite the advent of relatively cheap fast food that is luring a lot of people because of its convenience, maintaining a healthy lifestyle requires fresh food. “Our food culture is being lost compared to how my grandmother cooked,” Yakini said. “We have a whole generation of young people growing up without the extensive knowledge of how to prepare fresh food.”

    The urban farming debate continues in Detroit and recently attracted the attention of Rev. Jesse Jackson who called the concept “cute but foolish” because, according to Jackson, Detroit needs investment and industry, “not bean patches” to solve its economic woes.

    Yakini said Jackson’s remarks mischaracterize the urban agriculture movement.

    “People are wise enough to know that we need a variety of ways to utilize land in Detroit,” Yakini said. “We are not suggesting that urban farming should replace industry. There is no singular solution to the economic problems. We still need industry.”

    There have been other conversations around urban farming at the government level but Yakini said, “What they are talking about is planting Christmas trees, not food production. I think because we do have so much vacant land it gives us the opportunity to have food production in Detroit like they do in Havana, Cuba, which has created an example of urban agriculture around the world.”

    He believes that if much needed resources are dedicated to urban farming, Detroit has the potential to produce 10 to 20 percent of the produce that residents consume that will help address the economy because “there is money in the food system and the processing industry.”

    The other aspect, he said, will be “institutional support” — enlisting organizations and groups as clients such as the school system, and other institutions. But it is not only urban farming that Yakina and others are concerned about in creating a social enterprise that addresses food security.

    They want to be actively involved at the local government level and influencing policy that supports equitable distribution of food, ensuring that food policies are in concert with the demands of consumers and that there is a proactive approach to address any structural bias that lends itself to “food injustice.”

    That, he said, explains why the organization is working to create a retail food co-op store “because as the economy is in decline it’s becoming more and more apparent that the supermarket model is not the best model that keeps revenue in our community. It extracts revenue.”

    Urban farming creates an alternative economy with the possibility of job creation.

    “We need to rethink this whole idea of the economy and look at things locally,” Yakini said about an issue that has ignited debate in the wake of the collapse of Wall Street and the big banks.

    But Yakini is not alone in his thought.

    In 2008, I sat down with Archbishop Desmond Tutu for an interview and he echoed a sentiment that is at the center of the politics of local economies and has been a rallying cry for those who have called for a more extensive examination of the current economic system because of “unjust policies” toward the poor and less fortunate. “We are meant to live in a community of interdependence. If we continue to treat others as outsiders — and as you see, when they are outsiders, they will tend to get the thin end of the stick — then we will be in trouble. I hope that although we will be speaking from a position of weakness, we should be saying, ‘No, we want a fundamental revamp of the economic system,” Tutu said.

    While the economy is still sending people to the unemployment lines in Detroit and across Michigan, what should happen now that hunger is bound to increase? “We would encourage everyone to start growing something,” Yakini said. “That way they can reduce the amount of money they are spending on food.”

    Bankole Thompson is the author of the new book, “Obama and Black Loyalty, Vol. 1,” a trilogy on President Obama. His new book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” will be released soon.. Listen to his weekly analyses T
    hursdays at 11:40 a.m. on “The Craig Fahle Show,” WDET-101.9FM-NPR affiliate. He is a member of the “Obama Watch” roundtable program, Sunday evenings, on WLIB-1190AM-New York which is simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail him at bthompson@michronicle.com.

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