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.
Ms Bowie, might want to consider utilizing Eastern Market, if she hasn’t. Fairway Packing has online ordering and pickup service available and the quality is top restaurant quality. They also offer online weekly sales.
I do not believe that Kroger had several years of unprofitable operations in Detroit so they closed their last store in 2005. I believe they would rather discriminate against Detroit shoppers because they can get away with doing so, just as insurance companies are allowed to get away with redlining by over charging Detroit residents on insurance premiums. If Mike’s and Parkway are making money, surely Kroger could have and was making money. Making life as difficult as possible Black people in America has been a historical American practice. Being forced to travel great distance to obtain quality-healthy food is just one example of the Black struggle in America.
Also, It is significant to note that there are no high profile restaurants in Detroit, like Red Lobster; Texas Road House; Outback; Olive Garden; etc., but they make tons of money off of Detroiters who can afford to travel outside of Detroit to visit these establishments.
To Tom. I have used Eastern Market. As a child I accompanied my mother there every Saturday. As an adult I took my mother there and my children and grandchild. The Eastern Market does not offer for me what it once did. As for online ordering, I do not think anyone can select the same quality of fruits, vegetables and meats as I would for myself. Also, I enjoy shopping for my own grocery. I am also quite picky about where I dine.
Thanks Jena for the informative article. I have given your contact information to someone who does not have the luxury of a vehicle in order to get around.
Detroit having a lack of grocery stores is not really a race issue as independent grocery stores are becoming more and more rare everywhere. The grocery business is a very hard business if you are a single or small chain owners/operators (ie Hiller’s) as you have to pretty much live at your store. I have extensive experience with the Detroit grocery scene and spent many years in the mid to late 1970s and throughout the 1980s delivering to grocery stores with my family in the city. There were so many “food” titled stores, Food Town, Food Express, Food World, Food-a-rama, Food Farm and the list goes on. What has happened is that a lot of Chaldean-American business owners dedicated their lives to their stores during that time period. They did outstanding jobs and were way ahead of their time by offering grocery delivery in the neighborhoods, credit to those who needed it (before credit cards became a thing) and continually gave back to the communities where their stores were located. As their kids got older, the children realized the time commitment required to run a good and profitable grocery store and chose different careers. They did not want want to get up at 5:00 a.m. to go to their stores to get ready to open up by 8:00 am. and then stay until 9:00 p.m. all day, every day. It was just too much. Ask the independent grocer in Detroit how many hours they work. I can guarantee you it is not a 9-to-5 shift.
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