To get the groceries she wants and needs, east side resident Linda Bowie regularly travels to the suburbs.
The closest grocery store in the city to Bowie, 76, is on Jefferson, which, she says, doesn’t carry many organic items or high quality meats. So the Detroiter opts for Meijer in Roseville, or Better Health in Grosse Pointe Woods.
“You have to leave Detroit in order to find the quality food you want,” she said.
Luckily, Bowie has a car and can drive herself to the store. But for the approximately one-third of Detroiters who don’t have a vehicle and the city’s senior citizens, getting groceries in Detroit can be tough.
New research shows that it may have become even harder in the last few years, especially on Detroit’s east side. And, it’s a public health crisis. Inequitable access to healthy food contributes to chronic disease rates. In Detroit, four out of every 10 adults are obese, a health condition linked to increased complications from COVID-19 and heart disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest “Detroit Food Metrics Report,” released last week by the Detroit Food Policy Council, found Detroit has lost 10 grocery stores since 2017. The council, an advocacy group in Detroit working to develop a sustainable and equitable food system, notes there were 74 traditional grocery stores in 2017, before Detroit lost several. In 2021, the city gained two, but two more have since closed, leaving just 64 grocery stores in the 142-square-mile city.
“There are areas of the city that are food deserts now because there’s no access to a grocery store,” said Alex Hill, co-author of the report and research director for We The People Michigan.
A food desert is a low-income census tract where many residents have trouble accessing healthy food, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Since 2019, Detroit lost four farmers markets and food insecurity remained high, but the city did gain nearly 23 community gardens, according to the annual food metrics report. Other changes across the city’s food system include an increase in the number of gardens and a decrease in the number of school lunches served daily in the city.
Amy Kuras, the report’s co-author and the Detroit Food Policy Council’s research and policy manager, said the data is evidence of the resiliency of Detroit’s food system and the need to address the huge stressor of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Detroit community.
“This is a time for coming together and thinking of some innovative ways that we can really achieve food justice here in the City of Detroit,” Kuras said.
The food policy council, among other independent organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network and Keep Growing Detroit, work to advance a local and equitable food system in Detroit, and increase food access.
But Kuras and Hill agree that initiatives to address food equity and access within Detroit’s city government are lacking. Other cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore have food equity directors, but in Detroit there isn’t an official person spearheading the work.
“I think it would really help to have a food access coordinator,” Kuras said.
Denise Fair Razo, Detroit’s chief public health officer, agreed that food insecurity is a public health issue that has “severely” impacted the city.
“The Detroit Health Department is already working hard on this front by offering nutrition education and food assistance through our Women, Infant and Children program which helps to address barriers to accessing healthy food,” Fair Razo said in a statement. “We actively seek new opportunities to build bridges and enhance relationships with community organizations to create environments so people have the opportunity to thrive. This is certainly a collective impact and together, we will continue to work to advocate for our residents to successfully break down barriers and drive change as it relates to food access and equity.”
Hill said the report highlights issues around equity in the city and region’s food system. There are no Black-owned grocery stores in Detroit and Black farmers in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties own just 7% of farmland, according to census data.
Some feel the lack of grocery stores in Detroit is racist, or a form of supermarket redlining. According to a 2020 analysis by a nonprofit arm of CNN, the number of Black neighborhoods across the country with limited access to grocery stores is twice that of majority white neighborhoods.
Some Detroiters wonder why Kroger – the largest grocery retailer in the country – doesn’t have a store in Detroit. In Michigan, Kroger has 120 stores in 84 cities. The chain also recently opened a fulfillment center in nearby Romulus. But within the city proper, Kroger does not have any grocery stores.
“Following several years of unprofitable operations, in 2005, Kroger’s Michigan division made the difficult decision to close its Detroit store. We regularly evaluate our store footprint and continue to consider store expansions throughout the division,” a Kroger spokesperson told BridgeDetroit in an email.
The last Detroit-based Kroger store was on Gratiot Avenue. It opened in 2001, a decade after Kroger initially left Detroit, but after just four years, it was sold. Now, it is Mike’s Fresh Market.
Louie Nona, general manager of Parkway Foods on Jefferson, told BridgeDetroit he has nearly four decades of experience operating a grocery store in Detroit, and formerly a location that bordered Grosse Pointe, and there are a lot of challenges. Right now, he said, the biggest is recent shortages in produce and meat.
“The produce prices now are sky high,” said Nona, adding “everything now is sky high.”
Lately the store has been selling some items below cost, he said, to keep customers satisfied. A head of lettuce, for example, is $3.50, but Parkway sells it for $2.99. The store carries some organic items, he said, but they have had a lot of issues with “spoilage.”
According to a 2012 study from the Fair Food Network, Detroiters spend $200 million each year on groceries in the suburbs. Hill estimates that spending total is now between $300 and $500 million.
“A lot of these big name brand stores – they feel that they don’t have to cater to a predominantly Black community because we will follow them wherever they go,” Bowie said. “And, in fact, that has proven to be the case, because they have what we need.”
There’s hope though, from Detroit’s Black food justice leaders.
Detroit resident Raphael Wright is planning to open the city’s only Black-owned grocery store, Neighborhood Grocery, in the Jefferson Chalmers area. Separately, the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a cooperatively-owned, full-service grocery store, is being built in the North End by the Detroit Black Community Food Sovereignty Network.