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August 30, 2021

In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center senior fellows to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal. 

Read on for an interview with Malik Yakini, Co-founder and the Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

How did you get interested in food systems issues?

I became interested in food systems as a food consumer when I was thirteen years old. One of my teachers played a Malcolm X record for the 8th grade class and he talked about how the diet of African American people was largely influenced by the food we ate during our enslavement. Prior to that time, my favorite food had been chitlins, otherwise known as chitterlings. Malcom X talked about the fact that many African American people eat chitlins because that was the cast-off part of the hog that we ate during our enslavement. He said that the majority of black people worked in the fields and they got the worst food like the tails, snouts, hooves, and guts of the hogs. Hearing about food within a historical and political context for the first time really influenced my personal diet. That is when I first became interested, but it was decades later when I became interested in systemic food systems change. By about 1999 I was principal of a school, and we were doing a lot of gardening with the children and we developed a food security curriculum. Then, a friend and mentor of mine invited me to present with him at a conference for the Community Food Security Coalition. It was there that I became aware that there were people from all over the world doing similar work increasing access to healthy fresh food and creating a more just food system.    

What has changed in food systems over your career?

There is a greater interest now among consumers in organic and locally grown food. Because of that increased demand, the profit-driven food system has made more organic and locally grown food available. That is the main change I’ve seen. I’m also beginning to see more voices of black and brown people heard within the food system. There is still a lot of work to be done, but who tells the narrative is definitely beginning to change. 

What’s an innovation or development in the food systems world that you’re excited about? 

I’m excited about the pushes for racial justice in the food system. Justice shouldn’t even be an innovation at all, but in the American food system and within the food movement, centering it within a racial justice context is innovative at this point in time. Hopefully it becomes the norm. I’m excited about increasing calls for and work toward racial justice within the food system.

If there was something a new graduate of a food systems program should know, what would it be?

They should know that the American food system is rooted in theft of land that was occupied by Indigenous peoples. It’s rooted in labor that was provided by unpaid, enslaved African Americans. It’s rooted in the exploitation of workers, many of whom are from Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America. In order to create a more just food system, we have to address these deeply rooted social problems that are built into the fabric of American society. Just making sure that people have access to organic food is not enough. Just making sure that we have more local farms and gardens is not enough. There has to be fundamental structural change in American society to ensure that we have a food system that serves everyone equitably. 

What is the best meal you’ve ever had? 

I really love Ethiopian food, so having a vegetable platter from an Ethiopian restaurant is a sheer joy.