TENN immerses students in food issues


When I first heard about the immersion day with TENN, I was in the Detroit Mercy parking lot collecting old pumpkins to compost with TENN.

I learned the immersion event was on a Saturday and wondered what could be so special that it lasts eight hours, an entire workday.

But I didn’t question TENN because TENN is special.

The pumpkin compost was only my second time volunteering with TENN, which stands for Titan Equity Nourishment Network, an effort to make Detroit more self-reliant food wise.

My first-time volunteering with TENN was to deliver fresh produce to the community.

Both volunteering opportunities were magical in their own way.

During the pumpkin compost I was amazed at the outreach through social media that drew people from communities afar who wanted to compost their pumpkins and donate to TENN.

When I volunteered for produce delivery, there was a ray of sunshine on the community members’ face as we approached each doorway with deliveries.

Still, I am not quite sure if those experiences can compare to the collaborative immersive day led by TENN and University Ministry.

As I approached the ministry on the first floor of Shiple, I was greeted by a small group of student volunteers, alongside network program manager Grace Gramble, associate minister and Jesuit volunteer Connor Berry and minister for service and justice Erin McDonald.

We ate snacks, laughed and shared ice breakers. I spoke to familiar faces and enjoyed meeting new ones.

We all participated in a research exercise that broke down the ingredients of chili. We learned the agricultural process and how those ingredients were manufactured.

We were each given an ingredient. I was given tomato paste. When you learn California is America’s largest tomato producer and Detroit is 2,400 miles away, you realize conceptually just how expensive one cup of chili can be. The discussion encouraged reflection.

Our group headed down to the Eastern Market, where many of the volunteers had never been.

As a native Detroiter I have frequented the market. Yet I still left amazed – amazed by the food, amazed by the discussions.

I became immersed in the market, a community of vendors, people who work there, and learned of new produce such as a spider ball plant, a plant that can be used in your house to ward off bugs.

Many Michigan vendors offered fresh produce, some grown in Detroit.

I saw the beauty in having access to food, and even more so a privilege in knowing where your food is coming from, because often I am ignorant how it gets to the market.

After the tour of Eastern Market, our forensic inquiry into accessibility continued. We learned how the market allows shoppers to transfer EBT benefits into market coins that double, allowing them to buy twice the fresh produce.

Free cooking demonstrations in the market’s kitchen presented ways to use the fresh seasonal produce. We had lunch in the kitchen market dining hall.

I was not prepared for the savory taste of vegan pumpkin soup, focaccia bread, sweet potato wedges or pumpkin cookies.

Everyone left the table begging for at least one recipe and take-home boxes. If only we could melt the sweet smells of the kitchen into a waxed candle.

The day was only partial over, but we had already immersed ourselves in so much.

At the long table in the market’s kitchen, a discussion was begun about accessibility, food injustice, food deserts, environmental racism, redlining and capital. What does it mean to live within it, be ignorant of it, knowledgeable of it? A discussion of what has become of Detroit, what it once was and what we can do.

It felt like an open and honest conversation with a diverse group of people, and I believe we got to the purpose of this immersion trip: asking questions that people often ignore or hide from.

It hurt to hear and be in the presence of the truth, not because I was ignorant but because I was hiding from it.

People in urban areas such as Detroit do not have access to fresh produce.

There are many food deserts in Detroit.

Officials continue to build and invest more capital in downtown and midtown. There are new grocery stores and high-rise apartments being built there.

I knew all of this.

But my aunt, who lives on the eastside of Detroit, gets new factories built in her neighborhood at the same rate the grocery stores have closed, creating more food deserts and evidence of environmental racism.

People announce, “Detroit is coming back.” But one must ask, what and who are their priorities?

We left Eastern Market satisfied.

It was a cold day, but it was heated in discussion and immersive education.

We got back to the van and took the long way travelling to Marygrove Garden. We were all a bit closer to one another because of the honest discussions and because the day never lacked for smiles or laughter.

But the experience was not yet over.

It was 30 degrees at the Marygrove Garden, and some of the plants were wilted. Leaves were all over, yet the garden was so beautiful.

I believe the beauty was in the purpose of the garden. The garden allows community members to use pallets and garden there if they do not have accessible land of their own. And the cost to residents is zero.

As we all volunteered in the garden, it was a joyful afternoon with the director, Ms. Candi. She brought smiles, teaching so much. I worked on dropping garlic and covering it with woodchips or wherever else it needed.

She felt like such an endearment, spreading knowledgeable jewels as we gardened (telling, for example, of the multiple uses of garlic and how it is useful for sickness).

I found it exciting that they even teach a free class I am interested in attending.

The irrigation system – including the use of bottles to get to the roots – impressed many of us.

But I think the highlight of everyone’s Marygrove visit was receiving a special gift of tea leaves and lip balm made with ingredients from the garden.

Before we left, Ms. Candi expressed the importance of using everything in the garden. You could sense the value of community throughout the garden. I almost forgot it was 30 degrees and raining.

We packed back into the van to drive five minutes down the street to the university, where we watched a Ted Talk by Malik Yankini about food injustice and had our last formal reflection of the day.

A question was asked: What do you want to take from this experience?

“The fact that I can help,” I offered.

And what is TENN (the Titan Equity Nourish Network)?

Gramble described it as a campus organization “that engages students in food justice and sustainability initiatives.” She said it connects community members and community partners “to improve the food system and make it more sustainable, more just, more ethical in the city of Detroit.”

TENN and organizations like it rise when people volunteer. When you volunteer, you begin a cycle of radical and critical thinking that reaches into the community.

The goal of the immersion day was to “give Detroit Mercy students an opportunity to be engaged with food justice organizations and leaders in an immersive day,” said Gramble.

Depending on the number of volunteers for the next immersion day, Gramble said that she would like to go to some places they have not been before, explore topics more deeply, introduce community partners and maybe help cook in the kitchen because her favorite taste of the day was the pumpkin soup, and she too wishes she had the recipe.

Though we did learn the recipe for the pumpkin soup from the kitchen table at the Eastern Market, we gained a greater knowledge.

“Every time I am a part a conversation about gentrification and redlining, I’m always made more and more aware of those issues,” said Gramble.

What brought her the most joy on immersion day?

“The reflection and sharing time,” she said. “I thought when everyone was being very thoughtful and sharing from their hearts was really cool. Also, just all of the laughter and silliness throughout the day to see people having a really good time was important, too.”

Service was central to our day.

Erin McDonald describes it as a way of helping the community but of being rewarded with a fullness “that is about being in relationship with that community … mutuality.”

“We could have just gone to the garden at Marygrove, showed up with Grace, planted some garlic bulbs and left,” she said. “And that would have been fine. That would have been helpful. That’s what Ms. Candi needed us to do. But I think it was a more meaningful experience that we got to meet Ms. Candi, that she got to tell us about why this is important and how it impacts the community and what this means to her. I feel like I know her more. It makes me feel like I want to go back and help her.”

There were unique experiences that cannot easily be replicated.

McDonald’s favorite taste of the day was also the soup.

“I enjoyed it the next day because I took some home,” she said. “My favorite part of the day was having our lunch with the Eastern Market kitchen team. I really appreciated the conversation we had. I enjoyed eating that delicious soup having really challenging and meaningful conversation about the realities about our community.”

I met Zaria Reid at the immersion day, probably one of the funniest people on campus. She is a junior health information and technology major and student worker at TENN, part of food recovery. I asked her why students should come on the next immersion trip.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience…,” she said.