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Food Justice and Sustainability Activist Advocates Food Sovereignty and Urban Farming in Detroit

Shakara Tyler
Shakara Tyler

Shakara Tyler earned her PhD from MSU from the Department of Community Sustainability in 2019. She’s currently the board president of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and a co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund. And she works with several Black agrarian organizations around the country.

Tyler grew up in Philadelphia. She first learned about MSU when she was an undergrad at Penn State.

“I came to MSU because I was looking for a grad program that really centered all my interests,” says Tyler. “At the time I was pursuing agrarian or agricultural literacies among inner-city and urban youth. And I also was really interested in Black farmers. I did a summer program for undergraduate students at MSU that trained you how to do research and navigate the graduate school process. I came to Michigan State for the summer prior to graduating Penn State.

“MSU was a really good fit for me based on the curriculum of the department. And I had relationships with the faculty members and I was able to get funding for my graduate program. And so it was just a really good fit. Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, I would consider myself to not be the prototypical urban child. I was very much into nature. I loved going to summer camp. I was that child who would run off into the forest to be with the trees instead of going to play basketball or jump rope or something like that. I was always drawn to the natural environment around me, hugging trees, digging in soil for worms, and studying the cycles of the moon. And I just stayed with that passion. I knew I wanted to do something related to food and the natural environment because that was my passion.”

Tyler says coming to MSU was a transition “because I jumped into the water by working with farmers. I wasn't familiar with agriculture much growing up in the city. I didn't grow up on a farm. I didn't grow up with a garden in my yard. It was a really new experience that changed my life for the better from so many angles.”

Part of what inspired her to learn more about where our food comes from was the birth of her daughter. “Being a person of color, particularly a Black woman in the agricultural sector, I was usually the only person of color and or the only woman of color in my agricultural classes. And I always wondered why and felt ostracized and out of place sometimes. I was always curious as to why people who looked like me or people who shared my cultural background were not interested in the same things that I was interested in, that is as an agricultural major and someone who was just really interested in the natural environment generally.

“I was also really drawn to wanting to know more about where our food comes from. Because at the time I was a new mother. I wanted my daughter to have a more holistic lifestyle, particularly around the foods that we were eating because I grew up eating a lot of crappy foods. I wanted better for her. And so I started to learn how to grow my own food and just wanted to know more about the food system generally and why things were the way they were. And so I began to ask questions and one of my mentors told me that I should go to grad school because they didn't have answers to my questions and I needed to do research to get those answers. So that's what I did.”

Tyler is president of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

“DBCFSN is the acronym. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is a nonprofit organization that has the mission to build self-reliance, food security, food justice, and more importantly, food sovereignty in Detroit's Black community by influencing public policy, engaging in urban agriculture, promoting healthy eating, and encouraging cooperative buying and directing youth towards careers in food related fields. We have the vision of advancing the movement towards food sovereignty throughout the entire African diaspora, not just for Black Detroiters. Because we understand that food is dignity. Healthy food is dignity and access to fresh, affordable, healthy, culturally appropriate food is a human right, which does not currently exist for everyone on this planet. And so that's what we're working towards.”

How do you define food sovereignty? “Food sovereignty is the self-determining right to have a say in how your food is produced, how it is distributed, sold, and consumed, and even recycled back into the production process. It's really about a transference of power from the corporate food actors that dominate our food system to the people who are mostly the consumers of the food system and are generally most affected by food inequities and inequalities. We're demanding a complete transfer of power where we can have more say over our soil, our water, our air systems, and how that impacts us from a health standpoint. We want more control over these systems because seeds, water, soil, and ultimately the food that comes out of those three things intersecting is the essence of life. And currently there's a monopoly over food production, distribution, and consumption. And that's highly unethical. Food sovereignty is about changing that system where the people are in control and not corporate food actors.

“Food justice is a similar concept and is focused on fresh, affordable, healthy, culturally appropriate access to food in the way that we would like to consume it and in the way that we would like to produce it. Food sovereignty takes food justice a bit further because it's about controlling those systems that bring the food forth. They're very similar terms, but food sovereignty is often considered to be a more radical orientation where it's about community ownership of the food system. I don't want to minimize it, but it's a concept and a practice that centers around generally getting better quality food that's self-identified for the people who are consuming it.”

Tell me more about your work in Detroit.

“I'm with the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund that is subsidiary organization of Keep Growing Detroit. We are a coalition of three long-standing Detroit urban farming organizations with a collective mission to rebuild intergenerational land ownership for Black farmers in Detroit. And those three organizations are the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network that I'm currently very involved in, the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, and Keep Growing Detroit. We are a coalition of organizations that are committed to being in right relationship with the land. And we believe in the transformation of our communities through food sovereignty and the revitalization of Detroit's agricultural landscape. We honorably steward this fund to support Detroit's Black farmers in land acquisitions and general farm support. We believe that land ownership is a huge strategic tool in building intergenerational wealth, which a lot of Black Detroiters don't have.”

What's the state of, and potential for, urban farming in Detroit?

“Detroit is often considered to be the mecca of urban agriculture, and I didn't really know that prior to moving here to Michigan from Pennsylvania. And it was just, I guess, the divine flow of things that I ended up where I was supposed to be. Because when I would first come to Detroit and visit for the day coming down from campus, I used to be in such awe of so much agricultural activity happening everywhere in the city. There's such a wealth of vacant land available.

“People are growing in their backyards and their front yards and their vacant lots next to their houses and next to their businesses and even hydroponics and aquaponics in abandoned buildings. There's just so much energy around food production and growing your own food as a political power tool and taking back our voices and our power within the food system. We’re planting seeds and nourishing them through production and cleansing the water and air in the process. And we’re rebuilding our top soil that corporate agriculture has decimated over the course of a few decades.

“Urban agriculture in Detroit represents a really vibrant movement of people, grassroots organizations, and just general everyday people coming together to build a better reality in the face of so much blight and devastation that the city was experiencing.”

Can there be enough urban farming in Detroit to feed significant pockets of the community?

“Yes, that is a desirable vision for many of us in Detroit. We would like to have self-sufficient and self-reliant communities where we are growing as much of our own food as possible. Of course, everything doesn't grow here in Michigan. So that's an obvious challenge. However, we do want to grow what we can, even if it's all the tomatoes that we can eat for the season and all the leafy greens, all the onions, garlic, and things that are more commonly grown here that are common staples in our diet. We believe that is possible, and that is what we're actively working towards every day. Detroit is a metropolitan area that's unlike many metropolitan areas where there are huge swaths of vacant land available.”

From a 30,000-foot perspective, Dr. Tyler, is the world up to feeding its growing population?

“A recent report by the Food and Agricultural Organization, or the FAO of the United Nations, states that by 2021, 30 percent of the world's population, or about 2.3 billion people, will not have access to adequate food. And I wholeheartedly believe that that's not because of a food shortage. It's because of the political policies that are in place that restrict food access for many people, particularly poor people, women, and people of color. Feeding people is political, just like growing food is political. So we have more than enough food. The world grows, I think, three to five times enough food to feed the entire world over and over and over again. The corporate monopoly over the food system causes hunger and poverty. I believe that there's enough land and resources to feed the world. Will the monopoly that has a choke hold on the food system be relinquished enough so that that can happen?”

How does climate change impact the situation?

“Again, because of the corporate monopoly of the food system, our land and water and air supply are at very dangerous toxic levels because of the complete raping of the land and resources and just putting profits over people at every sector of the food system and the environmental system generally, which is causing severe climate change on a global level. And it just so happens that those who are most affected are those who are growing much of the world's food. Small scale farmers around the world grow 80 percent of the world's food, according to certain sources. Yet we have the least amount of power in the food system. And those small-scale farmers who are growing most of the world's food are using what we consider to be agroecological growing methods where we grow in communion with Mother Nature. We grow in communion with the natural environment, and we don't use a lot of harmful growing strategies like over-tilling, pesticides, monocropping, etc.

“We know that if we don't shift our growing methods rapidly within the next 10 to 15 years, there will be no more topsoil left. Topsoil is the quintessential ingredient in growing rich, nutritionally dense foods. Climate change intersects with food sovereignty and the food system generally. We know that industrial agriculture is a main driver of carbon pollution in our environment. They're a main contributor to climate change. The only way to change that is if we have a complete transference of power from corporations to people who are growing most of the world's food.”

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