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.