Detroit and the food desert myth

Fresh food in DetroitNot that long ago, I got into an argument with a professional acquaintance. It started off as a discussion, but the things he was saying were so blatantly false that I began to get angry. I don’t often get angry, but when people spread misinformation about something important to me, and refuse to admit that they might have their ‘facts’ wrong, it really sets me off.

The issue in question was the age-old “There are no grocery stores in Detroit” conversation. This colleague was from Grand Rapids, and he was telling this to people from all over the country. A room full of people from all over the US were hearing this guy talk smack about Detroit and how there was no food here.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “That is just plain false…” and we began getting into it. At one point the words, “Why would the media lie about that?” came out of his mouth.

I made my point, and was prepared to rattle off a list of places within three miles of my house that I could buy more fresh produce and meat than any one person could ever need, but he conceded the point and changed his stance to “Okay, there are no chain grocery stores…”

There are no chain grocery stores.

The Food Desert

Today on Reddit, there was a link to an article from “Our Values Magazine”, a religious blog based in Canton, Michigan (on a side note, I often find that the worst criticism and most venomous writings about Detroit come from other Michigan cities). The article asks, “Can Walmart save the day?” and goes on to call Detroit a “food desert” and suggests that a Walmart within the city limits will somehow “save” Detroit.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the story:

“The problem with fresh food, of course,is that it doesn’t last long. It spoils quickly.”

I have a lot of snarky responses to that, frankly, idiotic statement. Does fresh food spoil quickly only in Detroit? Why, golly gee, how will we live? We’d better eat more boxed and processed foods made by corporate giants like Monsanto and Kraft so that we don’t die!

Let’s get the facts out of the way right now: There are enough places to buy any kind of food you could ever imagine within the city limits of Detroit, Michigan. There are large grocery stores, small boutique food shops, fresh produce stands, food carts, convenience stores, farmer’s market stands, urban gardens, food co-ops, and every other kind of way for a person to purchase the food they need for their family that every other city in America possesses.

Honey Bee produce

Produce at Honey Bee La Colmena in Detroit

My fiancee and I go grocery shopping at Honey Bee La Colmena, E&L Supermercado, and Eastern Market. We also just got a new butcher shop called “Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe” within walking distance. “Oh, you guys live in the hipster neighborhoods where everything is concentrated…” the cynics say. Okay, I’ve also shopped at Imperial at 8 Mile & Dequindre, Mazen Foods at 6 Mile & Gratiot (in one of the most dangerous and “ghetto” parts of the city), and Metro Foodland on the west side. These are just a few of the many grocery stores all over the city. Like any city, some are nice, some are shady, but they exist.

I’m not sure what point these critics are trying to make: apparently having access to food anywhere in the city isn’t enough.

America’s eating disorder

This is not a problem with Detroit, nor is it a problem with access or distribution of food in the city of Detroit. What this actually represents is a problem with American food culture in general. It’s no secret that Americans have one of the worst diets in the world. For all our blustering as the most “civilized” country in the world, we are eating ourselves to death. The giant government food subsidies given to corporations with a profit motive have most certainly contributed to our continued declining health in this country; we are some of the fattest, most diabetic, most unhealthy people in the world. I’m not a scientist, but anecdotally speaking, it sure seems to be a big coincidence that the rise of all our metabolic health problems started with the rise of chain grocery stores and cheap, convenient eating in the 50s and 60s.

We have been brainwashed to think that “going shopping” and “feeding your family” means going to a big-box chain store that has the same products, prices, and experience inside whether you’re in Topeka, Atlanta, Duluth, Dallas, Walla Walla, or Rochester. That somehow, you cannot feed your family if you cannot buy sodium-soaked Campbell’s soups and highly processed Kraft Mac n Cheese. We think that our kids are being deprived if they can’t get Capri Sun in their lunch along with their Lunchables and Oscar Meyer. And we also think that somehow, if a store has all of those products but doesn’t have a nationally-recognizable corporate logo on the front, it suddenly becomes “not food”.

Detroit always has, and always will have, all of the processed products you could ever want to conveniently microwave and shove into your children’s faces. You can buy your Danimals and Sargento sticks and your Pop Tarts. It’s true that you cannot buy them at a Walmart, a Farmer Jack, a Piggly Wiggly, a Meijer, or any other chain store in Detroit, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

This article, suggesting that “fresh food” is somehow a problem, is insulting at best and downright dangerous at worst. They are presenting fresh food as an inconvenience that needs a solution that only corporate America can provide. This frightens me.

Walmart save us all

Here’s the neat thing about Detroit: Where there’s a corporate food desert, small and independent businesses have stepped in to serve the market. The stores are owned by locals and by individual people instead of boards of directors and shareholders. There is a profusion of fresh food (Eastern Market runs year-round and has more produce than you could ever hope to consume).

There’s a place for both kinds of businesses in a city the size of Detroit.

There is hope for concerned outsiders, though! Soon a Whole Foods will be opening in the heart of Midtown, and this is being lauded as a giant victory for the city of Detroit, who will now have the first chain grocery store in the city since 2007. These five years have been rough… I’m not sure how we survived without chain grocery stores (the last Farmer Jack closed in 2007), but we must have made our way out to the magical world north of 8 mile for long enough to bring back enough DiGiorno and Nabisco to eke out an existence.

So thank you so much for your concern, “Our Values Magazine”. We thank you for your prayers and hope that soon, God will send a blessed Walmart our way to save us all from the horrors of quickly-wilting fresh lettuce. I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.

10 thoughts on “Detroit and the food desert myth

  1. Brian,

    I agree with the bulk of your post here, especially regarding fresh food and big box stores. Robb Linn did a good job mapping out the grocery stores in Detroit and concluded the following (posted here: http://mapdetroit.blogspot.com/2011/02/blog-post.html):

    - Midtown, Southwest and near Dearborn have a medium to high quantity of grocery options, higher than the county average.
    - Eastern Market leads the county for quantity of grocers in an area.

    But the sobering fact
    "Areas in which the nearest full-service grocery store is more than one mile away – some areas of Detroit are, in fact, food deserts. In total, about 13.5 square miles of the city, or about 10% of total area, fits this definition. About 90,000 people live in these areas."

    So there are still tens of thousands of people in Detroit being under served, but these people aren't being targeted by the potential big box retailers either.

    This only takes issue with about 5% of what you've said, I don't disagree on anything except the complete dismissal of the "food desert" terminology for some parts of the city.
  2. Living more than a mile from the nearest grocery store is certainly a problem, and it is surprising in a city as large as Detroit. But it is certainly not unique to Detroit. I grew up in Lapeer, and for my family, the nearest grocery store - of any kind - was the Wal-Mart 4 miles away. A little farther was a Kroger and a Meijer. And for local, independent stores... well, some folks down the road sold pumpkins in the Fall, and out near Imlay City you could buy fresh rabbit. That's it. And I know that mine was not a unique upbringing. Millions of Americans live in "food deserts" far worse than where was raised. Relatively speaking, Detroit is pretty great.
  3. I wish I was within a mile of a grocery store, big box or otherwise, but here in the safe suburbs of Cincinnati (that no one has ever suggested is a food desert) the closest Kroger is about 2 miles away, Meijer is about 4 miles away, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Jungle Jims are all farther still. I think that it's not quite accurate to describe food deserts as being within a mile of a grocery store (although I do understand that the farther from a grocery store you get the harder it is to get to it if you do not have personal transportation).
  4. Brian,

    I agree with the bulk of your post here, especially regarding fresh food and big box stores. Robb Linn did a good job mapping out the grocery stores in Detroit and concluded the following (posted here: http://mapdetroit.blogspot.com/2011/02/blog-post.html):

    - Midtown, Southwest and near Dearborn have a medium to high quantity of grocery options, higher than the county average.
    - Eastern Market leads the county for quantity of grocers in an area.

    But the sobering fact
    "Areas in which the nearest full-service grocery store is more than one mile away – some areas of Detroit are, in fact, food deserts. In total, about 13.5 square miles of the city, or about 10% of total area, fits this definition. About 90,000 people live in these areas."

    So there are still tens of thousands of people in Detroit being under served, but these people aren't being targeted by the potential big box retailers either.

    This only takes issue with about 5% of what you've said, I don't disagree on anything except the complete dismissal of the "food desert" terminology for some parts of the city.
    I know it's inconvenient, but "more than a mile" is walking distance for many people. In big city context, it's a lot, but a mile is really not very far. The closest place to get food for my great grandmother up in northern MIchigan was about eight miles.
  5. What living in Detroit has done for our family is forced us to think more often and more strategically about the food we eat, and this is an amazing thing. No longer are we going to Kroger (although we could, it's not that far) and spending $150 on food for a week or two (some of which will be thrown away). We're going to the local grocer every couple of days and planning out those next few meals. Healthier eating, easier on the budget. In that sense, food in Detroit is more plentiful than we could have ever imagined.
    There's nothing ground breaking about it, but for many people who grew up in suburban areas, this type of mindset is alien.
  6. If "Food Desert" means there are no chain stores pushing processed crap food, but instead many smaller, local stores selling fresh wares... well... would that we were all so lucky as to live in a food desert. Anecdotally, I've never felt better or eaten better food than I have now that I shop almost exclusively at local places (yay Lansing City Market and Horrocks) for quality whole foods.
  7. The concept of "food deserts" in Detroit is largely misunderstood. If you go back to the original stories on the issue, it appears they are all based on one 2007 report - "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit" (downloadable at http://www.marigallagher.com/site_media/dynamic/project_files/1_DetroitFoodDesertReport_Full.pdf).

    That report defines a food desert as an area where the nearest grocery store is twice as far away as the nearest "fringe food location" (e.g., convenience store, fast food restaurant). Hardly the same thing as saying there are no grocery stores in Detroit.

    My best guess as to what's happened to the info over time is that it's attributable to sloppy journalism. Someone with a big audience misquoted the report as saying that all of Detroit is a food desert, then that article was further misquoted by others down the line. It appears few journalists actually go back to the original source anymore, to check their facts before writing articles about our food desert issue.
  8. During the interminable period waiting for a house of our own in Detroit this site is the best reading I've found, and this post is my favorite so far. It required the reading aloud of multiple passages and brought on lots of head bobbing. It will, I imagine, become one of many things I wish I could make required reading for the people who are so perplexed that we want to buy a house in Detroit.

  9. Thanks for reading! Good luck in your search and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

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