By Sammy Schuck
Editor’s note: This is part of a package of three articles and a podcast about green justice – environmental justice – in the Great Lakes region.
Is it fair to call Detroit a food desert?
Many people, including researchers, have regarded Detroit as a food desert. Yet the term food desert is no longer correct in describing all of Detroit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a census tract to be a food desert based on its poverty rate and the proportion of residents living more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.
A 2015 study, “Detroit’s Food Justice and Food Systems” by Dorceta Taylor of Yale University and Kerry Ard of Ohio State University, described the issue.
The majority-Black city has 54 neighborhoods, some more stable and wealthy than others. Neighborhoods also differ in diversity, “the proportion of Black in particular neighborhoods varies greatly, from 5% in Springwells, to 97% in Bagley,” the study said.
To generalize the whole city as a food desert is incorrect, however. In fact, under the Agriculture Department definition, only about 10% of Detroit could be classified as a food desert, another study said, suggesting instead that the city is a “food grassland” that has small pockets without easy access to grocery stores.
Ard, an associate professor in environmental and natural resource sociology, cautions, “Anytime you label a place, a community, especially if it’s one that has associated negative connotations to it, it’s not good.
“Oftentimes, people come in and want to say, ‘Oh, that’s an easy solution, let’s just solve it this way,’ instead of trying to allow there to be nuance and understand the nuance,” Ard says.
Amy Kuras, the program manager of research and policy at the Detroit Food Policy Council, also says “food desert” is incorrect. She says she’s heard of two terms to replace the term.
One, “food swamp” refers to how “it can be hard to find a carrot if you don’t know where to go,” she says.
“All the major thoroughfares, especially once you get out of the downtown areas, it’s fast food, coneys everywhere,” she says, adding that a food swamp “tends to cluster where people have more economic need.”
The other term is “food apartheid,” Kuras says.
That’s the idea that this was not random, she says.
“There’s a reason that in Detroit, people often rely on things like party stores, convenience stores, for some of the food because there’s a lot of policy and planning and racism that leads to people perceiving Detroit as not a place to do business.”
One defining feature of a food desert is that it heavily focuses on access to supermarkets and grocery stores, and not on other sources of food, the study said.
In the 1970s, Detroit lost over half of its grocery stores, and Kuras says many large national chains left the city by the 1990s and 2000s.
Due to racist policies that caused residents to leave, Detroit became depopulated, and “there wasn’t the population to support those stores, a lot of them closed” she says. Additionally, the perception of crime, as well as economic forces such as recessions in the 1980s and 1990s played a role.
The Taylor-Ard study said looking only at supermarkets and large groceries considers less than 3% of the city’s food outlets. Even including fast food restaurants, gas stations, liquor stores and convenience stores count fewer than half of Detroit’s food outlets.
Left out: urban farms, community and school gardens and farmers markets.
Ard says her study found that people “are taking care of themselves, just not in the way recognized by most researchers and supported by a lot of policies.”
“It’s often not seen and not really supported. Instead, people talk about ‘Oh, let’s put a Whole Foods in there.’ That might not be the best solution. The solutions are already happening in the community,” Ard says.
Kuras says food access has improved in recent decades, a change tying into the concept of food justice.
Food justice “combines an interest in growing and consuming healthful food sustainably with an interest in social justice,” according to study.
What’s led to improved food access?
Three major contributing factors are urban farms, farmers markets and garden programs where members get more produce at lower cost.
Urban farms became bigger during the pandemic, Kuras said.
She also cites Eastern Market’s Detroit Community Markets Program, which assists farmers markets throughout neighborhoods.
In addition, Kuras points to Keep Growing Detroit’s garden resource program with its affordable family membership. Members choose three seasons’ worth of plants and can get training in how to garden.
Dwayne Haywood, the Wayne County director in the state Department of Health and Human Services, says most farmers market vendors can now process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
And Lewis Roubal, the department’s chief deputy director for opportunity, says SNAP has been expanded and become more robust due to COVID-19.
“Early on, we were able to begin issuing emergency allotments, which are continuing to this day, that increases the amount of SNAP benefits families receive in Michigan,” Roubal says.
Kuras says one problem confronting urban farms is conflict with development in some neighborhoods where city government or a private landowner says, “You’ve got to get rid of this farm because I’m going to build something on it.”
The Detroit Food Policy Council has been advocating a more streamlined, fair, and easier-to-understand process around land acquisition for the city.
However, chain stores have been returning. In 2005, a Meijer store opened by the former State Fairgrounds. A few weeks later, so did a Whole Foods in Midtown, according to Kuras.
Now there are three Meijer stores in Detroit, and Target has announced plans to open at the corner of Woodward and Mack in the next few years.
Kuras says those stores are coming because the companies realize they’re missing out on an untapped market.
And Haywood stresses the importance of assisting additional stores, particularly mom-and-pop ones.
Another major issue, according to Haywood, is transportation, particularly for residents who are older or disabled. He says the state agency is trying to partner with Uber to transport people from stores to their homes.