Is there an oasis in Detroit’s food desert?

Cross-posted by Brandon at The Michigan Messenger.

The lack of grocery stores and healthy food options in the city of Detroit are major setbacks in the city’s attempt to raise the quality of life and maintain a sustainable tax base. To address this issue, last week the NORR and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel entitled, “What are the Issues in Attracting Grocers to Downtown Detroit?”

Detroit is in what many describe a food desert, a situation in which communities have little or no access to healthy food and where grocery stores are few and far in between. A report by the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group found,

Over half a million Detroit residents live in areas that have an imbalance of healthy food options. They are statistically more likely to suffer or die prematurely from a diet-related disease, holding other key factors constant.

The report went on to discuss why the food imbalance was so stark. One major contributing factor is due to the fact that the majority of food options in Detroit do not specialize in providing healthy food or high quality food. The report refers to these food options as fringe options in contrast to mainstream grocers that are abundant in many suburbs of Detroit. These fringe locations appear not to specialize in healthy foods but, instead, in the sale of 1) alcohol, 2) tobacco, 3) lottery tickets, and/or 4) a comparatively small selection of prepackaged and canned food products high in salt, fat, and sugar.

This summer saw the exit of Farmer Jack, leaving Detroit “without a single national chain supermarket, much less a Wal-Mart or Meijer superstore or a Costco-style warehouse store.” One of the panelists, Najib Atisha, co-owner of the Indian Village Marketplace told the Michigan Messenger that many of the larger grocers leave Detroit due to a “decrease in population and not enough volume.” Moreover, the absence of big box grocers provides more opportunities for neighborhood grocers like Najib to pick up where more mainstream grocers fail. During the panel, many of the participants remarked at how much they enjoyed the selection provided by Indian Village Marketplace. When asked how the presence of big box grocers impacted his business, Atisha told the Michigan Messenger,

I personally have never been concerned about major grocers because they follow the same blueprint that they use all across the state of Michigan and sometimes it just doesn’t work for certain urban areas. You have to cater to the customer’s needs.

Indian Village Marketplace has been in business for thirty years and at their current location for five years. As it pertained to availability of providing healthy food options, Atisha said, “The key thing is to get the consumer more educated because if the consumer asks for the product enough then the retailer will provide it on a regular basis.”
One of the participants, Orena Perry told the Michigan Messenger that she felt the issue of educating the consumer was being directed toward, “The African American or urban community, who they [the panelists who promoted educating the consumer] believe is not wise to their own needs and wants are regarding healthy foods. I feel that we are a well-educated community to know and be able to decide what we want to eat and how to eat healthy. Many of us [African Americans] are taking the charge to eat healthy to get our bodies and lives in shape.”

When asked what would be the best way to getting more healthy food options in the city, Perry told the Michigan Messenger that “More people should support Eastern Market, Detroit’s largest fresh produce venue that is also supported by local farmers.”
One of the panelists was Michael Curis, a developer and President of Curis Enterprises. Curis told the Michigan Messenger that he was passionate about developing grocery stores within Detroit, “Because there is a great need, especially now with the emergence of the “food desert” discussion and the health of the urban population.”

When asked what was the biggest hurdle to his work, he explained that

It is redevelopment, which means that you are not buying a piece of farm land. Often times you are buying a property that has already been developed and in many cases still in use. So because of that, there many issues with assembling a property with environmental contamination, relocating utilities, closing streets and alleys, re-zoning properties, geotechnical issues, etc. – all issues that you don’t have when you do greenfield development when you can just go out in the suburbs and just buy a farm.

Despite these hurdles, Curis has found success in a number of projects including,

  • Riverbend Plaza – Detroit’s first shopping center in years that is anchored by Spartan Foods grocery store.
  • Mack-Alter Square – Another shopping center that is being anchored by Aldi Foods grocery store.
  • Woodward Place – Breaking ground on a new shopping Center in Highland Park off of Woodward that is anchored by Aldi Foods grocery store.

“We are trying to put grocery stores in the city, when many are leaving,” says Curis.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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