The History and Conflict of Food Access in Detroit

The food desert term has been readily applied to Detroit’s food system. However, the majority of academic and other research fails to take a comprehensive look at Detroit’s food system or its history. Following the New York Times article questioning whether the “food desert” term is just media buzz, I decided to share some of my initial findings in Detroit. I began researching Detroit’s food system about a year ago and started surveying grocery stores in Detroit 6 months ago because I could not believe the research coming out of the University of Michigan and other institutions that Detroit was devoid of fresh foods or healthy options. NPR recently published an article titled, What Makes a Food Desert Bloom, but fails to note the importance of food education on healthy eating to accompany increased visibility and access to healthy foods.

Detroit is a Food Desert or Food Swamp?

The map image accompanying this post is not the best illustration, but it is a complication of the best data sources on Detroit’s food system. The map represents the flaws and misunderstandings of outside consulting agencies and more general displays of either out-of-date or misguided information. Rob Linn has been creating some excellent maps of Detroit food stores data and now works with Data Driven Detroit. His maps are more current and show a cleaner picture of the actual data in Detroit. The surveys conducted by outside agencies have missed the mark and have published misguiding research to back up the “food desert” claim. The biggest problem with maps is that they are very “planner” focused and it is very easy to make broad claims based on maps. A recent PhD. out of the UM School of Public Health conducted research on African-American’s perceptions of food choice in Detroit and I’m very excited to read her findings. Understanding community perceptions and choices is going to be more important than placing food stores on a map.

Brief History of Detroit’s Food System

Currently, there is only one black-owned grocery store in Detroit where 4 out of 5 residents are African-American (DFPC Annual Report of Detroit Food System, 2009-2010). Detroit is a city with historic racial and economic divisions. These divisions often played out within the food system and its evolution up to today.

Small neighborhood grocery and convenience stores also hired few blacks. […] Few blacks worked where they shopped. Fewer felt any loyalty to neighborhood stores. Only a decade after the survey, inner-city grocery stores were among the most prominent targets of young looters. White-owned and -operated stores were the most prominent businesses in Detroit’s African American neighborhoods and the most convenient symbol of the systematic exclusion of blacks from whole sectors of the city’s economy. (Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, 113-114)

The title of “food desert” has been both accepted and refuted in Detroit. The majority of academic researchers lean towards labeling Detroit as a food desert, however others have come to that conclusion without adequate research into price and accessibility of foods the term is not helpful. Counting chain supermarkets and the 1 mile radius around those locations doesn’t give an accurate picture of food availability or access to quality fresh foods. Shannon Zenk (PhD ’04) while at the UM School of Public Health reported that Detroit was a food desert based on her research of “chain” supermarkets and their proximity to large numbers of residents. Her research found that, “supermarkets were farther away from African-American neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty than they were from white neighborhoods with the highest levels of poverty (SPH Findings Spring/Summer 2009). This is an extremely inadequate picture of healthy food access and environment within the city.

Detroit has a long history of local grocers supplying neighborhoods while there have only been a few chain supermarkets to ever exist within the city limits. As of 1954-55, there were 69 supermarkets operated by Kroger, A&P, and other small local suppliers in Detroit. One of these small local suppliers was Food Fair, which in 1955 merged with Lucky Stores which operated as Food Fair markets under the Borman Food Stores Inc. In 1959, Borman bought up other smaller chains (State Super Markets, American Stores Inc., Lipson-Gourwitz Co.) and expanded to 46 stores in Detroit and Ferndale. In 1966, Borman announced the opening of three superstores under the name of Farmer Jack.

Farmer Jack was A&P’s most profitable division after the merger, but by the 2000s was having trouble competing with larger supermarkets like, Kroger, Meijer, K-mart and Walmart. Farmer Jack is recognized as the last chain supermarket to remain in Detroit before A&P put the stores up for sale and all locations closed in 2007. Kroger acquired twenty former locations while independent grocers collectively bought 21.

The flip side of the grocery and chain supermarket story in Detroit’s food system is that of community and urban gardens. Detroit Public School (DPS) student handbooks from the 1950s included a chapter on how to create a community garden. Urban farming and community gardens is a whole aspect of access to healthy food that needs its own post, so I won’t go into it here.


Detroit Food Map: access and environment

Contrary to popular belief and to oft-cited media, I have found that Detroit is not a food desert in its entirety. Detroit has a few neighborhoods and areas that lack a good number of options, but as a whole Detroit is a food swamp or as some say a “food grassland, rain forest, and jungle” (Rob Linn).

The families that I work with across Detroit tell me a similar story. They access food resources from a plethora of sources. One family told me that they try to get to Kroger whenever they can (outside Detroit), but otherwise get good fresh produce from a food bank since the Caregiver is out of work, they participate in the community garden, and visit an independent grocery store when they need to restock staple foods. Other family’s have told me similar stories of utilizing multiple food access points.

A food desert is defined as:

“any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. Food deserts are also linked with supermarket shortage.” (wikipedia)

Access is a key word when talking about food deserts and this is where many researchers count the number of stores and measure the distance from supermarkets to given populations. However, this often paints an inaccurate picture. There is more to access than the number of stores and how far away they are. Just because a grocery store is close by doesn’t mean that it has a huge fresh foods section or many healthy options. New research has noted that distance to healthy food may be psychological. This is where greater education on healthy food is necessary to create a more direct connection between people and healthy eating. I have been using the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey (NEMS) in order to attempt to get a more accurate picture of access to healthy foods. NEMS criteria focuses on comparing availability, price, and quality of foods between healthy food options and less healthy food options. Access is more than just distance and can include issues with the stores not stocking healthier food options, the quality of healthy foods available, and most importantly the price: is it cheaper to buy a bag of chips?

I have used the NEMS criteria to survey 20 grocery stores in Detroit (see Detroit Food Map) and what I have found has been entirely different from the large body of research that pegs Detroit as a “food desert.” All of the grocery stores had availability of fresh and healthy foods. Some produce sections were bigger than others and some carried more varieties, but all in all fresh foods were available and in good quality. The only items that were regularly low in quality were strawberries and cantaloupe. Likewise, I found in many stores that price could potentially be a hindrance for purchasing a healthier option, particularly with fruits, baked goods, meats, and juices. I spoke with a number of store owners and employees. Many said that they too have had a hard time with the “food desert” label and want people to know that they carry fresh foods. In some stores the owners noted that customers don’t regularly buy the healthier food options (i.e. ground turkey) or their fresh produce is purchased slowly, so it goes bad more quickly.

“It’s not enough. People always want more. We carry everything, many options, but people would rather shop at the super markets: Meijer, Wal-Mart. . . Is it because we don’t have the options? Look around!” – Staff Interview, Independent Grocer 02/02/12

My coworker, who has lived in Detroit her whole life and has been involved in improving the food system, has seen over the past 2 years an increase in farmer’s markets and community gardens in what she thinks is a response to food desert hype. Potentially, Detroit’s independent grocers have done the same and hopefully will continue improving their price, quality, and availability of healthy and fresh foods.

(image source)

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