Slow Food, Social Mobility, and Whole Foods in Detroit

Anyone who follows news about Detroit hasn’t missed that Whole Foods is opening its Midtown location on June 5th. Young people are tweeting that they are already writing up their grocery lists, students are excited for the organic produce, and who out there can actually afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods for their groceries!?

I know that I for one, cannot. It is exciting that Whole Foods is coming into Detroit when all of the chain supermarkets fled the city, but to the tune of huge tax breaks that the city could really use. It must also be noted that Whole Foods in Midtown does NOT address the scarcity or availability of healthy foods in Detroit. Rather Whole Foods taunts Detroit residents with the bright lights of an upscale chain food store, but no change to access in Detroit’s food system.

Classism in Slow Food 

“Slow Food Detroit” was founded in Clarkston, MI  –  51 Miles away from the city.

“Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is part of a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members in over 150 countries, which links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.” (SlowFoodUSA.org)

Slow food is inherently easier for those with higher incomes. Access to better foods, organic options, and what some might call “picky” food choices favors those with extra money to spend. In Detroit income is highly correlated with race. A major reason that Detroit has limited grocery stores and high rates of diet-related diseases among African Americans is due to the fact that historically African Americans were either not considered for grocery store hiring or were hired and kept away from management positions. When the riots hit and many people left the city, there was no one with the skills to fill the grocery store void. Likewise, the supermarkets followed wealthy white populations leaving for the suburbs.

The addition of Whole Foods represents a similar imbalance in the “slow food” movement where all items are local sourced, organic, etc. with a price tag to match. Personally, my wife and I only shop at Whole Foods for wine, dessert, and food items that help manage lactose intolerance. Other than that, we would never dream of doing the bulk of our grocery shopping there. If anything Whole Foods has come into Detroit to capture the commuter market in one easy spot before they drive home outside of the city.

The Detroit Drilldown Report 2010 reported on grocery leakage (people spending grocery dollars outside of the city), that Detroit resident spend $200 Million (31% of grocery budgets) outside the city on their groceries. People may start shopping inside the city limits at Whole Foods, but I predict that the majority will take it back home outside the city.

Social Mobility & Transportation

An important aspect of slow food and access to healthy food is unfortunately transportation. Detroit residents are up against a public transit system that is broken and in serious need of repair. In Detroit healthy transportation can mean healthy food access as well. Many families that I have worked with work hard to car pool with their friends and neighbors to be able to shop at a chain grocery store or they utilize a plethora of food options: local stores, buying co-ops, gardens, etc.

When people do not have adequate transportation that also constrains their food options. If you are walking to a grocery stores that is miles away, why wouldn’t you choose the convenience store instead? If you can’t afford personal transportation, that may also limit you to low cost, high calorie food items. If you can’t often go grocery shopping that may also mean you choose items that will last much longer, which also tend to be the least healthy food items.

Social m0bility is linked to transportation, especially in economically depressed urban centers. These issues both disproportionately affect low income minority community the most.

Detroit’s Changing Food Environment

Meijer is also starting to build close to the Westside and that represents a better potential for healthy food access than Whole Food ever could, but there really needs to be tax incentives for local grocery store owners if healthy food access is going to improve. The Fair Food Network has been advocating and now “Double Up Food Bucks” for fruit and vegetables will be available in some grocery stores soon.

There are increasing food and grocery options Downtown, where the 2010 Census shows population growth, however this population growth is from new residents not residents moving from the East and West side into Downtown. Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe has called itself a grocery store, with Papa Joe’s Market coming soon thanks to Dan Gilbert, these are options on top of the new Whole Foods. The growing Downtown/ Midtown populations are not the populations of Detroit who do not have social mobility and do not face the higher prevalence rates of diet-related disease and obesity. The population dense neighborhoods on the East and West side of the city have not seen new grocery stores and in a number of cases local grocers have shut down only to be turned into Family Dollar locations.

privilege is a key determinant of health

In our world of abundance there are growing areas of scarcity, our urban cities. These growing areas of scarcity once used to be bastions of wealth, but are now best known for their decaying infrastructures and lack of resources.

In some cases urban cities have faced industrial decline, in others its an issue of poor residents being marginalized. Either way, the health disparities that accompany low-income and minority communities is abhorrent.

One of the top health indicators related to privilege that can be seen in these communities is access to healthy food options. From Los Angeles to Detroit to Philadelphia, various communities lack basic nutritional resources like fresh produce and as a result have been disproportionately hit by health conditions related to lifestyle such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

In the Ramona Gardens projects of Los Angeles, residents have to travel 3 miles by bus to reach the closest supermarket for fresh produce. The other small shops in the community just can’t stock as much as larger stores because they don’t sell the same quantities or they would have to charge higher prices. The health impacts such as hypertension and childhood obesity noted by a free clinic in the community show how critical access to healthy food options can be. The Ramona Gardens project is a great example of privilege playing a role in the health of low-income and minority communities by way of accessibility of resources.

photo credit: Dr. Hillier (NPR)

Similar issues have been found in black, low-income communities of Philadelphia. Like many urban areas, grocery stores fled to the suburbs where there was more space for larger stores and safer neighborhoods, not to mention higher paying customers. As a result of a community mapping survey, almost 20 supermarkets have opened in Philadelphia with the help of state funding. This brought access to healthy food for many low-income communities in the city.

As recently as 2007, large grocery stores have pulled out of Detroit. Not many have attempted to stay and Farmer Jack was the last standing. Detroit is often called a “food desert” because it lacks a major chain supermarket. The problem is not necessarily a lack of supermarkets, but rather the scarcity of healthy food options. Martin Manna, the Executive Director of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce of Southfield said,

“There usually is a market within walking distance of nearly every area of Detroit. It might not be a supermarket. That might be why there are so many people eating potato chips rather than wholesome foods in Detroit.”

Other Detroit residents have noted the lack of options at Detroit stores. Some stores claim to be serving a “black clientèle,” but  Gordon Alexander, who lives on the East side, says its just an excuse for stocking bad quality goods. This is a perfect example of racial privilege compounding income disparities when it comes to healthy food options in Detroit.

Our world of abundance needs to be able to serve everyone. There should be no reason that low-income communities struggle to purchase fresh produce or healthier foods. We can’t allow fast-food chains to make profits in the “marketplace of the poor” and add to the health disparities of minority communities. If anything, we should be able to find a way to offer healthy food to all citizens of our country regardless of race, income level, or location.

Featured on Americans for Informed Democracy Blog where I’m contributing as a Global Health Analyst.