Drive toward downtown from virtually any direction and you’ll probably pass through one of Detroit’s ‘food deserts’ which, simply put, are areas with limited access to affordable, healthy food options.
But keep driving and you’ll hit what news outlets from National Geographic to The New York Times are heralding as a true culinary oasis — a hub of artisan eateries capable of wooing even the most sophisticated palates.
The seeming contradiction that Detroit can at once be a desert and an oasis, beautifully articulates the dichotomy at the heart of the city’s resurgence and raises the question of how we might reconcile this tale of two cities.
For Dr. Joel Kahn — a lifelong Detroit Lover and advocate for the health and wellness of its residents — the answer lies in education. As a renowned cardiologist, Dr. Kahn has a lifetime of experience communicating how important food is to personal health and, in turn, the health of the community he calls home.
“There are too many options to eat poorly and never enough to eat well at an affordable level, so I try to give back by raising awareness of the important health issues in the city.”
Dr. Kahn’s story begins in Detroit, and though his studies took him away from the city for a time, work and family ultimately brought him back.
“I was born in Harper Hospital in 1959, so it all started in the D. I grew up in the suburbs, but my father and grandfather had a store on Fort Street and Junction, Gardner-White Furniture, which was founded in 1912 and is still a family-owned business. I spent a lot of time as a child and teenager at that location and in surrounding areas, at the time there was no concern for a young child to wander. My mother used to drag me down to the Ford Auditorium to watch Vladimir Horowitz play. We sat in the top row on the balcony. We also used to celebrate family events at Joe Muer’s on Gratiot Avenue when I was very young — I remember the lines to get in.”
Today, what keeps him here is nostalgia for the Detroit he remembers and a desire to help shape the city’s future.
“Detroit has a vibe and kinetic nature. I love driving up and down Woodward, remembering the displays in the windows of Hudson’s, then the down times, and seeing what is going on now. The love of music, great food, the international border, people helping people, culture at the DSO, DIA, Historical Museum and such — all these things have endured over the years, even with all the change going on. Now I see that same energy in the food scene, which has exploded.”
Though clearly referencing the influx of restaurants near the city center here, much of Dr. Kahn’s personal and professional focus has been on educating communities about the importance of maintaining a healthy diet so they can make better choices for themselves and their families.
“I lecture any and everywhere — in the public and private schools of Detroit, charity events, on TV and in houses of worship — spreading the message that, for most, health is a choice and food is the most powerful path to achieving it. I also lead walks for the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association and continue to coordinate events at the Detroit Eastern Market and other venues to help show individuals and corporations that we are not doing enough to prevent heart disease. This message is not being taught consistently by the hospital systems and I am a thorn in their sides asking them to do more. We will be a stronger city if we are a healthier city and I am dedicated to being a leader, shouting that message from any forum I am permitted. The lessons are simple, but the teachers are few.”
Teachers are precisely what’s needed to help drive that message home. Like Dr. Kahn said, “health is a choice,” but for families struggling to make ends meet, the choice to eat healthy can be a difficult one. So, Dr. Kahn is committed to proving that a healthy lifestyle is possible, even on a budget.
Fortunately, he’s not alone in those efforts. From non-profits and foundations working with local retailers to provide more wholesome options, to Detroit Public School initiatives aimed at providing more nutritious meals to students, to the more than 1,400 community gardens empowering communities to take control of their food supply — not to mention bolstering the economy while providing jobs and a source of community pride — there are a number of organizations working to educate and inspire Detroit’s underserved populations about the power of food.
Together, these organizations, with the support of individuals like Dr. Kahn, are beginning to seed a rich food ecosystem in Detroit. One that supplies the growing number of restaurants with fresh, locally-sourced produce, sometimes cultivated by the hands of their neighbors. One that, like so many things in Detroit, stemmed from finding creative solutions to the unique challenges facing our community. One that, above all, has the capacity to nourish the bodies and minds of the people who bring that community to life.
It’s an idealistic vision to be sure, but perhaps it’s not so farfetched to say that good food and the health that follows can be a thread that ties Detroiters together. A common cause for us to rally around. An opportunity to break bread and start conversations with our neighbors about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. A reason to sow a shared vision around how to grow a healthy community in which we can all thrive… Together.