Detroit Resident Calls Bullshit on “Food Desert” Propaganda

Though not every neighborhood is served, Detroit has many local independent grocers, including ground-breaking models

By James Griffioen
Published by Sweet Juniper, January 24, 2011

I’m just one of about 800,000 people still living in the city of Detroit, Michigan, the nation’s 11th most-populated city. Because of the events of the last half century, this is a city that journalists and academics love to examine and study. In focusing on the sensational, they often concoct maddening generalizations about what they’ve found here. In the time I’ve lived in Detroit, I’ve come to realize that the most sensational claims and the public perception they create often have little to do with the day-to-day reality of being a Detroiter. This is a complicated city, and even in the most sincere efforts to cull some truth from it, visiting journalists often end up spreading damaging falsehoods.

One of the most annoying is that Detroit has no grocery stores.

This is something that I have been hearing about for many years. While attending law school in nearby Ann Arbor, I was told that everyone who lives in Detroit has to go to the suburbs to do their grocery shopping. With the recent spate of journalists visiting Detroit, this “fact” has gained even more traction. NBC’s Chris Hansen recently took some time away from his grueling schedule of catching predators to draw attention to how difficult it is to find groceries in Detroit: “ There are more than 400 liquor stores in Detroit. But if you want to buy food, good luck. In the entire 140 square miles of the city, there are no Krogers, no Safeways, only eight supermarkets, and they’re discount stores .” (Dateline NBC, April 20, 2010). Andrew Grossman of the Wall Street Journal emphasized that Detroit lacks “chain” grocers: “No national grocery chain operates a store here. A lack of outlets that sell fresh produce and meat has led the United Food and Commercial Workers union and a community group to think about building a grocery store of its own.” (WSJ, June 16, 2009) And most recently, Richard C. Longworth (senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former Distinguished Visiting Scholar at DePaul University) writes in Good Magazine: “This seems incredible—a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket—but it’s true. No A&P. No Meijer’s. Not even a Wal-Mart. Any Detroiters who want fresh store-bought fruits and vegetables or wrapped meats have to get in their car and drive to the suburbs. That is, if they have a car.”

I’m tired of being nice about this. That is such utter and total bullshit.

I know the traditional media is suffering. Reporters are overworked and underpaid. Scholars like Mr. Longworth, too, might not have the research assistants they once enjoyed, but I would certainly expect anyone who makes an unequivocal statement like Detroit “is a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket” to at least have done a 4-second google search to confirm it (six seconds, I guess, if google isn’t your homepage). In four seconds, here’s what I found:

Each of those orange dots is a supermarket, not a liquor or discount store. A couple of them are even Aldi stores, a chain supermarket operated by the same company that owns Trader Joes. Many of those dots represent “ Spartan Stores,” associated with a regional food distributor that “supplies 40,000 private label and national brand products to nearly 400 independent grocery stores.” A quick search on the Spartan website shows how many affiliates exist within Detroit city limits:

While not the same as a national chain, an affiliation with Spartan Foods provides some uniformity among the products sold in these independently-owned Detroit stores. Many of these stores are operated by individuals and families from the large Chaldean (Iraqi Christian) community living in metro Detroit. The cleanliness and quality of merchandise and services provided by these stores definitely varies, and your average New York reporter might not be able to find his favorite lemon-infused chevre or organic arugula at all of them, but that doesn’t mean these supermarkets don’t exist, or that they somehow fail to serve the demands of their community. I went out looking for some of these mythical Detroit grocery stores, and while some aren’t particularly inviting, plenty of them are actually quite nice inside and out.

There is no question that many of the neighborhoods served by these independent stores are desperately poor. Sticking a pristine Whole Foods or even a Super Wal-Mart in these neighborhoods is not going to somehow solve the dietary issues poverty has created among their residents or provide jobs without displacing others. Those are incredibly complex problems and simply spreading hyperbole about a uniform lack of shopping options across a 138-square-mile city does nothing to solve it. Detroit does have individuals and organizations working hard to solve the problem of access to produce where it exists, and their efforts are often ignored by a media obsessed with the myth that Detroit has no grocery stores. A Detroit church recently opened a produce market called Peaches and Greens with an ice-cream truck that travels to the neighborhoods most in need of such options. The Eastern Market Corporation is working to create a CSA for seniors and others who cannot make it to the market but want fresh produce delivered. Several groups are also working diligently to put more fresh food options in the corner stores that may be the closest option for some neighborhoods. While a reality for some Detroiters, all this pervasive talk about the “food desert” is insulting to the large swath of the population that does have transportation and does make an effort to forgo fast food and cook with those healthier options that may be a few steps or blocks further down the road, but are nonetheless there.

What surprises most people who’ve heard that there are no grocery stores in Detroit is that there are actually independent stores far more appealing than any chain. One of the nicest grocery stores in Detroit is Honeybee La Colmena (I wrote an extensive profile about the store here). Honeybee is owned and operated by individuals who grew up and still live in the neighborhood where the store is located and they have created dozens of jobs for their neighbors. Honeybee has some of the best produce and prepared foods in the metro area, and it is actually a Detroit supermarket where people from the suburbs come into the city to shop.

In addition to Honeybee, Southwest Detroit is also served by several other excellent Supermercados, including E & L, La Fiesta Market, Gigante Prince, Ryan’s, and dozens of smaller mom-and-pop grocery stores. The far east side has Joe Randazzo’s Produce Market for extremely affordable produce, and the far westside has Metro Foodland, a fine independent supermarket serving Rosedale and Grandmont for more than 25 years. An individual recently purchased a vacant storefront in the middle class neighborhood of Lafayette Park (where I live) and plans to open a full-service supermarket there this Spring. He’s bullish on its prospects despite another supermarket operating three blocks down the road and the neighborhood’s close proximity to Eastern Market. A family that’s been in the Detroit grocery business since the 1950s is reopening their Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe on Woodward Avenue in a new Midtown location this year, complimenting the offerings at Kim’s Produce just down the road, as well as Goodwells Natural Foods a few blocks over.

No, none of these places are a Wal-Mart or a Kroger. They’re much better for our community. The money that thousands of Detroiters spend at these establishments every week doesn’t pay salaries of executives in Bentonville or Cincinnati. It pays to support families that still live in this community and pays to support the livelihoods of their employees. It pays to support reinvestment in the stores themselves and the surrounding community. Further, it pays to sustain a unique shopping opportunity that is quite unlike any other.

* * * * *

The myth of a city without supermarkets is hard to kill, even faced with the evidence above. Ultimately, that myth perseveres because the mainstream media and its audience is steeped in a suburban mentality where the only grocery stores that really seem to count are those large, big-box chain stores that are the only option in so many communities these days, largely because they have put locally-owned and independent stores like the ones you find in Detroit out of business. It is true that the big chain stores have forsaken or ignored Detroit, for any number of understandable (and sometimes despicable) reasons. But in their absence, a diverse system of food options has risen to take their place, and the tired old narrative that Detroit has nowhere to shop for groceries needs to be replaced by a more complex truth: with a diversity of options ranging from the dismal to the sublime, Detroit may be one of the most interesting places in America to shop for food .

Much has been written about urban farming in Detroit. No one really believes these tiny farms will ever sustain the produce needs of an entire city, but few doubt that they will continue to play an important role in the city’s transformation and they will only grow in importance as an integral part of the city’s food culture. The vegetables and fruits grown in Detroit’s gardens are so bountiful that neighborhood produce stands pop up; a coalition of inner-city gardeners sells thousands of pounds of affordable produce almost daily during the growing season at local farmer’s markets. Soup kitchens and schools supply their own produce from extensive and expertly farmed plots. In 2010, several Detroit farmers banded together to start the first CSA deliveries consisting entirely of produce grown in the city. Small-scale farming in Detroit has actually become a viable part of the urban food system and not just a novelty as it is in other cities.

Even if Detroit didn’t have these independent grocery stores or its hundreds of urban farms, it would still have Eastern Market. Covering 43-acres at the heart of downtown Detroit, with convenient access to freeways and major bus lines, Eastern Market is the largest historic public market district in the United States. And no one is in a better position to swat down the stories of Detroit’s lack of produce or the pervasive and patronizing myth of the food desert than Dan Carmody, the energetic President of the Eastern Market Corporation. “How can they call this city a food desert?” Dan asks me. “When Detroit sits right in the middle of the best local and regional foodshed in the United States after the central valley of California!” Dan points out that Michigan is second only to California in the diversity of crops grown, and besides it has immediate proximity to Canada’s “sun belt” in Southwest Ontario (where excellent hydroponic tomatoes and other fresh vegetables are grown year-round in nearby Leamington, home the largest number of commercial greenhouses in all of North America) as well as the Amish/Mennonite belt that stretches from Pennsylvania to Indiana. Metro Detroit, with a population of nearly 5.4 million people, provides a huge market for these local and regional farmers, and the nerve center for distribution of their products is in Eastern Market at the heart of Detroit city.

Most Detroiters are keenly aware of the Saturday public market in the newly renovated turn-of-the-century market sheds, where as many as 40,000 people come downtown to shop for fresh local produce every week, and many have been doing it for decades. “If all these reporters are right when they say Detroiters have to travel to the suburbs to buy fresh produce, why do 15,000 or more suburbanites drive down here every weekend to buy fresh produce?” asks Mr. Carmody. The Eastern Market Corporation has worked hard to make the produce sold by its vendors accessible to all Detroiters. Saturday vendors accept tokens created through a program in effect since 2007 where shoppers can use their Bridge card to buy fresh produce. It has created the innovative “ Double Up Food Bucks” program that “provides families receiving food assistance benefits with the means to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.” And the “ Michigan Mo’ Bucks” program aims to stretch the amount of money families receiving assistance get when that money is spent on fresh produce. Eastern Market is not just for the overpriced localvore yuppie/foodie crowd, but it succeeds in serving the needs of all Detroiters. And nowhere is this region’s diversity on better display than a Saturday morning at Eastern Market, when tens of thousands of people from all backgrounds converge to buy fresh and affordable local produce.

What many people don’t realize is that Eastern Market buzzes with activity Monday through Friday. The wholesale business of distributing fresh produce to groceries and supermarkets throughout the region gets underway well before most people wake up in the morning. Mr. Carmody tells me that some of fanciest independent grocery stores in the metro area (Papa Joe’s, Plum, Westborn, etc.) all send buyers down to Eastern Market before dawn to pick out the best local and regional produce for their stores. That means the expensive tomatoes and apples sitting on shelves in suburban Birmingham and St. Clair Shores likely came through the “food desert” of Detroit. These wholesale buyers come to Eastern Market for local products first, before they head to the Produce Terminal (also in Detroit) for produce trucked in from California or elsewhere. As “buying local” becomes more and more important to consumers, so will Eastern Market and its longstanding ties to local and regional farmers.

In addition to produce, Eastern Market is a center of meat processing and butchering in the region. Many of the wholesalers welcome the public during the week, so Eastern Market is not just a year-round weekly farmer’s market where you can buy pretty much anything that’s grown regionally, it is a daily shopping experience that one might liken to shopping in an ancient European capitol, where you can go from shop to shop to buy bread, wine, dry goods, produce, cheese, fish, and any kind of meat you could possibly want from rib-eyes to raccoon. It is close enough to downtown that Eastern Market is convenient for office workers to swing by on their lunch breaks to pick up some groceries while grabbing a slice of Detroit’s best pizza or a sandwich at one of the city’s best delis. I profiled one of my favorite Eastern Market merchants,. R. Hirt Jr. (a business that has been in the same location and family since 1890) here, and I also wrote about a hardware store that has been doing business on the same spot in Eastern Market since 1918. I consider Eastern Market my own “super center” and I walk there with my kids several times a week. Many of the shop owners and food sellers know me and my family by name, and shopping there is a unique experience that I treasure. Here is an excellent video that tells a bit more about Eastern Market, showing some of the farmers, wholesale buyers, and shoppers who make this Detroit institution such an incredible place even though it is always ignored by journalists eager to spread the shocking lie that Detroiters must leave their city to shop for groceries.

In addition to the Saturday market, there are also farmer’s markets in various neighborhoods around the city several other days a week, including a nice one on the campus of Wayne State University in Midtown (one of Detroit’s most walkable neighborhoods), one in Northwest Detroit, and one on Warren Avenue on the city’s east side.

In the end, I hope this tirade accomplishes my primary goal of eliminating the gross generalization that there are no grocery stores in the city of Detroit and that its citizens are forced to leave the city borders to buy fresh meats and produce. That myth is fueled by the unfair assumption that big-box chain stores are the best and only places to shop, which is particularly nefarious in my opinion because the model used by those stores is largely unsustainable for our cities’ futures. Chinese-manufactured goods shipped and trucked tens of thousands of miles and sold for razor-thin profit margins may seem convenient, but I truly believe we still haven’t learned their true cost. In my opinion, it is the exurban and small town shoppers who must choose between the uniform selections of a Wal-Mart, Kroger, or Meijer that truly have limited options. I prefer to celebrate the absence of these national retailers in this city rather than add it to the heap of things we already have to complain about here. Grocery shopping in Detroit may not be as convenient as it is in the suburbs, but the model we have here is more sustainable, more diverse in its options, and certainly more fun and interesting. I just wish more visiting journalists would take the time to see that.

© 2005 Sweet Juniper