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Jess Daniel

By Tunde Wey & Noelle Lothamer
March 17, 2012

A system is a network of associated and coordinated parts, each informing the whole. Systems are movements -- ideas and practices that work to produce specific outcomes.

Jess Daniel is consumed by how systems function, specifically food systems and how they connect to the broader world.
Food, Daniel says, can be a way to "dig into issues that might be difficult for a community to tackle directly -- issues like sustainability, democracy, development and racism. These ideas are complex, they can be contentious or even painful, and there aren't really answers in the traditional sense. Food is tangible, it's joyful, and it's something everyone has in common -- it gives a common language and it also offers endless opportunities for people to do things to create the change they want to see."

Daniel, originally from California, moved to Detroit after meeting people in the food movement who inspired her and encouraged her to come and get involved. She approached her graduate advisor to see if she could combine work in Detroit with a PhD in community food systems and sustainable agriculture.

He said yes, so she packed up and moved to Detroit in July 2010 and shortly thereafter started a pop-up restaurant called Neighborhood Noodle. It was meant as a way to meet her neighbors, become involved in the community, and learn about running a food business.

Through Neighborhood Noodle, Daniel met fellow Detroiters who were trying to start community-based food enterprises, but couldn't find the support they needed. She started to convene a group of peers in January 2011 to discuss how the start-ups might support one another. Thus FoodLab Detroit was formed. The group (and specifically the structure of the social network of members) is also the subject of Daniel's dissertation research.

FoodLab Detroit is more than a research project; it is Jess Daniel’s expression of the important role good food plays in our communities. FoodLab is a group of food entrepreneurs committed to the triple bottom line business practices of profitability, social responsibility, and environmental protection. Although there is no formal membership, their email list serve currently boasts close to 80 members. Through monthly gatherings, using workshops and presentations, FoodLab educates entrepreneurs on good food business development. So far, 54 food entrepreneurs have participated in these classes and workshops.
Inspired by the work of the Michigan Good Food Charter, FoodLab promotes four core components of good food enterprise: businesses should be healthy and accessible, fair, green, and place-based and accountable. FoodLab also offers peer-group review sessions to its members, in which members set measurable individual as well as group oriented goals focused around these four core areas.
Daniel calls entrepreneurs “activists and changemakers”, and sees their role as essential to creating “a more sustainable and equitable system.” For FoodLab, equity means “including people into the conversation that have a stake, but are not necessarily in at the table,” and allowing these different parties to begin effectively and consciously solving problems, with guidance and support from their professional peers.
This intentional and deliberate way of operating simultaneously addresses issues of sustainability. By cultivating diversity and fostering transformational change agents, Daniel says “this network of changes will help make a systemic change” creating more “sustainable successes” and a “more resilient world.”
Systemic change, a change that questions and disrupts the status quo, is a long term and encompassing task, so a strong vision is necessary to weather the doubt that time brings. For FoodLab, that vision is a flourishing ecosystem of diverse and locally owned businesses manufacturing, processing and retailing healthy, green, fair and accessible foods in the city.
Daniel and her network of good food entrepreneurs might just help us understand other important yet difficult issues along the way.

Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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