will big box grocers change access to food in Detroit?

You can quote me on this:

“more big box stores will not equal better food choices”

On January 20, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative with Walmart and the Let’s Move Campaign to increase access to fresh and healthy foods. The program is supposedly bneing evaluated by the Partnership for a Healthier America, whose Chair, James Gavin said he would like to see Walmart double its US store count.

I don’t often shop in Walmart (actually I try to avoid it), but last month I had a reason to be in a Walmart store. Working in childhood obesity research and surveying food outlets for nutritional quality, I took the time to notice the advertisements and products on display. To say the least, none of the food items advertised or on display were healthy or fresh.

There were none.

Behavior Change & Food

My point is that more Walmart stores in “food deserts” doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are going to be eating healthier. I don’t doubt that Walmart making an effort to improve the nutritional quality of its food products and offering more fresh and healthy foods will have a negative impact, however it is going to take more. When a low-income family has the choice between the on-sale advertised frozen dinners or the larger amount of fresh vegetables they are more than likely going to choose the product where they get more for their money (or at least what seems like it).

“there needs to be more education, access, and a american cultural shift towards healthier eating”

Everyday I work with adolescents and their families on managing childhood obesity. We talk about making healthy changes to their food intake and often times we talk about how to shop for healthy foods on a budget. It is possible and varies in difficulty, depending on your situation. Some families that I’ve worked with went the entire six months of the program without changing much in their eating habits. Changing your food choice is not that easy.

Eating healthier is easier if you are wealthier, have greater options, and have been introduced to ideas of healthy eating from a young age or cultural norm. Classism in the slow food movement is another topic, but extremely relevant as we talk about access to healthy food, urban settings, and growing income inequality often reflected in racial disparities.

Grocery Stores in Detroit

The idea of having more big box stores address “food deserts” and the lack of healthy foods isn’t new. The idea easily makes sense; large chain supermarkets are better able to supply larger amounts of fresh produce on a regular basis if they want to. Save-a-Lot released a report on food deserts in April 2010 and has also signed on to First Lady Obama’s campaign.

For Detroit, Save-a-Lot represents a greater potential than Walmart to be able to address the need to greater access to healthy and fresh foods since there are already ten locations in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramack. I have yet to be able to assess the level and quality of fresh food available at a Save-a-Lot store (coming soon).

Anyone following food in Detroit knows that a Whole Foods store is being built in the Midtown district, near the Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University and on the way home for downtown workers leaving the city. This was not the step forward that so many people were hoping for when there was talk of bringing in a national supermarket. Whole Foods is a specialty food store that caters to a wealthier clientele (Midtown avg household income: $113,788), I only go there for wine and dessert. It may bring more fresh food to the Midtown area, but won’t help many Detroiters without access to healthy foods.

A new development with more potential to impact the Detroit fresh food scene is the re-purposing of a former Detroit high school into a Meijer supermarket. Meijer often promotes healthy food options, has a partnership to offer healthy kids recipes, and has a fairly well-stocked produce section.

Big Box vs. Small Grocer

Like many locations that lack necessities, people create solutions to address those needs. Detroit has a number of small grocers and food supply stores, not to mention the largest Farmer’s Market in the US. As the #Occupy protests address money in politics and the ills of corporations, we need to be mindful of where and how food is accessed. Food is a critical piece of our national health and unfortunately our national politics.

People’s needs should be placed over profit and neither ketchup nor pizza are vegetables!

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