The close relationship between Detroit restaurants and urban farms is what makes the city’s food ecosystem so distinct. But the pandemic created an unprecedented disruption: sales faded for growers, many of whose business model largely depended on selling produce to restaurants and wholesalers, while restaurants found themselves with a surplus of perishable foods.
Financial strain, compounded by the disproportionate rate of Black Detroiters impacted by COVID-19, has put pressure on many businesses whose staff and customers resided in deeply affected neighborhoods. But Black chefs and farmers are adapting quickly, finding new ways to get food directly to Detroiters — and to support each other — by leveraging partnerships with local nonprofits and transitioning to e-commerce models.
At the onset of the pandemic, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm — a Black-owned farm located on the northeast side of the city — pivoted from selling its fruits and vegetables to restaurants to offering emergency food distribution. Produce boxes were available for pickup, and door to door deliveries went out every day for 10 weeks. Food assistance is still available weekly at the Oakland Avenue Saturday farmer’s market, which opened in June — visitors can also buy essentials like body care products, with the option of curbside delivery.
In early July, Oakland Avenue launched its first online marketplace in collaboration with D-Town Farm, the city’s largest Black-owned farm at seven acres. “We noticed that there were white-owned organizations coming together, reorganizing and realigning how they work, but many of the black farmers were being left out," says Oakland Avenue executive director Jerry Hebron. "Both Oakland Avenue and D-Town have a large community following, and we were both concerned about how to continue marketing our produce and meet the demand. How can we support some of these growers that have been lost in the mix?”
The marketplace is currently in a one-year pilot phase, but Hebron says that if the trial is successful — and she believes it will be — she and her staff will expand the marketplace to host up to 200 vendors from around the city.
Meanwhile, Black food industry folks are connecting with each other, and with local nonprofits, to feed the most vulnerable. After Michigan’s shut down went in effect, Chef Godwin Ihentuge, owner of Afro-Caribbean restaurant Yum Village (named as one of this year's best new restaurants by the Detroit Free Press), reached out to different organizations to offer his support. “I’ve always been a big community advocate,” he says.
Ihentuge cofounded the Pay It Forward: Power a Business & Feed the Homeless project, which provided food to unhoused individuals and at-risk girls while paying a dozen POC-owned restaurants to utilize their kitchens. The campaign, which ran April through July, raised more than $50,000. “These types of initiatives allow me to keep my staff employed,” says Ihentuge, who is committed to paying a minimum of $15.50 an hour, with benefits such as earned time off, direct primary healthcare, and financial planning services.
The restaurant has also been involved with several larger initiatives, including Feed the Frontlines, through which the City of Detroit paid out-of-service restaurants to make meals for public safety and healthcare workers. Yum Village and Ima, another Black-owned restaurant that serves Japanese-style noodles and rice bowls, were able to serve more than 5,000 frontline EMS and hospital staff. Ihentuge was also involved with preparing meals for families and senior centers through a $50,000 commitment from World Central Kitchen.
In mid-March, many chefs and restauranteurs of color who had an inventory of excess food came together for an initiative called Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good. One of the participants was Stephanie Byrd, co-owner of casual gastropub The Block. “This was an opportunity to focus on helping the community, the underserved, those experiencing food insecurity, instead of being so involved in the daily grind of business,” she says.
Byrd donated excess from her restaurant’s perishable goods and paid some staff to help execute these free meals. The initiative ended in mid-June, having provided more than 15,000 meals to four shelters around the city. Byrd says the initiative inspired her to incorporate a service component into her business model: “We’re in Midtown Detroit, which has several shelters and food banks,” Byrd explains. “We’re going to make sure we give back.”
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Recognize the People Keeping Detroit Well Fed."
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