With Harvest Express, Detroit native Jenile Brooks aims to bring fresh fruits, veggies and more to her hometown, one of America’s most arid “food deserts”
IT IS A CRUEL PARADOX of modern life that obesity — seen in centuries past as proof of wealth in a world where there often wasn’t enough food to go around — is, in America today, a particular scourge of the poor, who have ready access to the empty calories on offer at fast-food establishments but much less to fresh fruits and vegetables.
One of the most arid of these so-called “food deserts” is the Detroit metropolitan area. Detroit’s numerous economic problems have been well-documented, but its nutrition crisis is, if anything, even more acute. As Jenile Brooks — a Motor City native whose professional background is in television and film production — notes, there hasn’t been a single major grocery chain within Detroit’s city limits for years.
Through Harvest Express, Brooks, 30, aims to change that. The business “grew out of my interest to better serve Detroit as a native of the city and someone who recognizes the pervasive reach of food, particularly as it relates to health and education,” she says.
Formerly called Oasis Organics, Harvest Express is an online grocery that will offer delivery to businesses and homes throughout Detroit, focusing on Michigan-grown food, whether organic or not — produce and packaged goods at first, with plans soon to include meat, dairy, seafood, bread and assorted household items.
“A simple change in Detroiters’ access to fresh, conventionally grown food might encourage consumers to make healthier food choices in a way that offering [just] organic might not, particularly because organic produce is often more expensive,” Brooks says, explaining her business’s name change and shift in emphasis. “Also, food that is as local as possible has the benefit of increasing movement in the local economy in a way that organic food doesn’t.”
Her commitment to her hometown is total; a 2003 graduate of Howard University, she worked in broadcasting and film in New York for years before deciding to move back to help Detroit emerge from nutritional purgatory. The Motor City’s manifold problems cannot be cured by produce alone, of course. But Brooks’s company will help bring one troublesome aspect of the city’s difficulties back into balance — a positive end in itself as well as a (nutritious and delicious) boost to the its entrepreneurial culture.
“As a native Detroiter, I was called home, so to speak, because of the need I saw,” Brooks says, noting that the renaissance the city has been attempting to showcase (in Super Bowl ads and elsewhere) is real, if fitful. “Detroiters are resilient, and deeply committed to the city,” she continues. “A lot of what’s working is the result of community-led movements and collaborations between existing organizations and new young energy.”
Why did you change the name of the company from Oasis Organics to Harvest Express?
The name was limiting for what I wanted to do. Fresh food is food from sources that are as local and sustainable as possible — which can include organic food but doesn’t have to. Even if an item is organic, if it has traveled a longer distance to someone’s plate it may have lost a significant part of its nutritional value. A simple change in Detroiters’ access to fresh, conventionally grown food might encourage consumers to make healthier food choices in a way that offering [just] organic might not, particularly because organic is often more expensive.
Is there an economic benefit to buying local as well?
Yes — food that is as local as possible increases movement in the local economy in a way that organic food doesn’t. If every family in Michigan spent just $10 a week on Michigan-made food products, $37 million would be invested back into the economy each week.
Obesity and healthy eating are major issues these days, given extra salience by Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. Is Detroit a receptive market for this?
There couldn’t be a better time to open a food-related business in Detroit. A year ago, an organization called Social Compact produced a report identifying retail growth opportunities in Detroit. Among their findings was that Detroit loses around $200 million a year from citizens shopping [outside] the city for groceries, and that the city could support another 583,000 square feet of grocery stores. No one believes me when I tell them that there just aren’t national grocery retailers in Detroit. Couple this need with the fact that the American public as a whole has become more aware of the link between food and health, and Detroiters are seeking healthy food options now more than ever.
It seems like a layup, then, for any big grocery retailer — or a smaller, more entrepreneurial business — willing to make even a modest commitment.
There are definitely others working toward this goal. There’s a great market and produce truck run by a nonprofit that has been at the forefront of bringing healthy food to underserved neighborhoods on the East Side. There’s also Eastern Market, the country’s longest-running open-air farmer’s market. Two national retailers, Meijer and Whole Foods, are coming to Detroit — Meijer this year, Whole Foods in 2013. There are a few other seasonal farmers’ markets and a handful of social entrepreneurs, as well as nonprofits and foundations that offer grants to help existing grocers and encourage new businesses.
Is anyone doing specifically what Harvest Express will do?
I have not yet seen an organization with tactics similar to my own. The closest that I’ve found is a company called Door to Door Organics, which offers boxes of produce at varying prices according to household size. Customers pick their box size and sign up for weekly or biweekly delivery. At Harvest Express, though, we believe produce is just one of the many possible “fresh food” solutions for Detroit, and we want the online shopping experience, as much as possible, to match that of in-store shopping, but with the convenience of home delivery.
Detroit’s plummeting population has resulted in a lot of unused space within city limits. Has there been any talk about reclaiming some of that land for agriculture?
Detroit has long been talked about as perhaps the new model of urban agriculture, which stands in contrast to what’s happening in places like New York or L.A., where access to vacant land is limited. Compare the more than 25,000 acres of vacant property in Detroit to that of New York, which has a mere 11,000 vacant acres in a city twice the [geographic] size of Detroit. Some say our vacant land is about the size of the entire city of San Francisco.
What has been the response to Harvest Express from others in the city — “Oh, great, it’s about time!” or “Detroit has way bigger problems than this to focus on”?
I couldn’t be happier with how Harvest Express has been received. People inherently understand the important role food plays in our lives. I also think that in some ways, people understand that where and from whom they eat is a highly political action that advocates for the support of local resources. I’m working with a number of other Michigan small-business owners who manufacture packaged goods, and I anticipate even more partnerships with existing food companies and nutritional/health-related nonprofit organizations.
Despite all its problems, Detroit seems to be on the upswing. People want to help it come back, and it seems to be home to a growing community of young entrepreneurs like you. True?
People outside Detroit tend to see and hear more of what’s not working. The energy within the city is much different. You can feel that things are changing, even if those changes aren’t yet visible. But that’s also part of what makes it exciting to be in Detroit right now. There’s an incredible wave of young people, particularly entrepreneurs and artists, who are moving to Detroit — but it’s also important to note that Detroiters who have been in the city for years are very much a part of, and the reason for, the upswing. Detroiters are resilient, and deeply committed to the city. A lot of what’s working is the result of community-led movements and collaborations between existing organizations and new young energy. •