Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Food Grasslands of Detroit

Despite the successes of many of Detroit’s grocery stores, dozens of researchers, journalists and bloggers have helped brand Detroit a “food desert,” a place where residents cannot access fresh food.   No shortage of media outlets – such as the Detroit News, NBC, CNN, Good Magazine, the New York Times, Guernica Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine - have run stories casting Detroit as a “food desert."  The most common criticism of the city’s food system is its lack of large-scale chain stores, such as Kroger, Wal-Mart, A&P, Costco or Meijer’s.  Others suggest the city has no grocery stores at all.

In many cases, this type of story is little more than a new form of “ruin porn." In one of my favorite examples of this trend, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow reported that there are "no places to get fresh fruit or vegetables" in the entire city, while standing only a few blocks from a large chain grocery store.

Although Model D’s Kelli Kavanaugh eloquently questioned this view in 2007, this predominant view persisted.   More recently, Sweet Juniper’s James Griffioen wrote a similarly insightful piece for Urbanophile, aimed at “eliminating the gross generalization that there are no grocery stores in the city of Detroit.” Its success at combating a tidal wave of journalistic thought, however, remains to be seen.

Although Kavanaugh and Griffioen clearly disproved Good Magazine’s Richard C. Longworth’s argument that there are “no supermarkets in Detroit,” I think neither sought to answer the larger question of whether Detroit, on the whole, was a food desert. Moreover, if it is, how large is our caloric tundra?

To answer this question, I turned to government licensing data from the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which regulates food retailers in Michigan. Weeding through the 15,000 entries for Wayne County was taxing (I started working on this process in November), but worthwhile.  Most of these entries are for gas stations, liquor stores, and vending machines.

According the State of Michigan, Detroit has 111 full-service grocery stores, 58 butchers/fish markets, 34 bakeries, 20 produce markets, and 35 specialty stores, given the following definitions:

• Full-service grocery stores: a store that sold fresh produce, dairy, fresh meat, and bread at the same location.
• Butcher/fish markets: a store selling only fresh meat or fish
• Bakeries: a store whose primary purpose was selling bread.
• Produce market: a store selling only fresh fruits and vegetables.
• Specialty stores are food retail stores that are beyond classification, such as Detroit’s three chitterlings stores, the sweet potato store, and the many spice stores.  I don't include these beyond the first map.

Even with this large number and variety of stores, some areas of the city are without adequate access to grocery stores. Given the United States Department of Agriculture definition of a “food desert” – areas in which the nearest full-service grocery store is more than one mile away – some areas of Detroit are, in fact, food deserts. In total, about 13.5 square miles of the city, or about 10% of total area, fits this definition. About 90,000 people live in these areas. Another 60 square miles have average suburban-level accessibility, with a grocery store less than a mile, but more than a half-mile, away. I like to think of these areas as “food grasslands.”

The majority of Detroiters, however, seem to have relatively normal food accessibility levels. If you compare population density to the location of grocery stores, the highest density areas are usually well served.

The most glaring omission in this “food desert” discourse, however, is that Detroit has tremendous food accessibility in some areas. If we’re going to label parts of Detroit a “food desert,” we have to give it credit– a lot of Detroit is a “food grassland” and many areas of Detroit are “food jungles” and even perhaps “food rainforests.” Detroit’s Eastern Market area actually has the largest concentration of food retailers of any neighborhood in Wayne County. Ares in Midtown and Southwest Detroit are also well above the county average.

Ironically, the very reason many writers call it a food desert – the city’s lack of national large-scale chain stores – may be the very reason it does not have more of a food accessibility problem.  Among Detroit’s 111 full-service grocery stores, only a handful are over 20,000 square feet, which is fairly small by industry standards. Because of their size, more of them are needed to meet demand of the city’s residents. As a result, they are, in many cases, closer to residents than a larger store would be.

Clearly, Detroit is not a food desert, although some areas do face serious food accessibility difficulties and these areas are home to tens of thousands of residents. That said, calling Detroit a food desert because it lacks major large-scale grocery stores is ironic.  While I think every Detroiter would support seeing additional grocery options, we should celebrate the food gems - like Honeybee Market, Joe Randazzo's Produce, and Eastern Market - that call the city home already.  They could use your support - most of America thinks they don't exist.