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.


  1. This is really amazing and important work Rob. I always thought it was silly the way people talked about Detroit being a food desert, especially when places like Honeybee Market exist and stuff. It's amazing to see it all laid out as BS. Is there any reason people would perpetuate these kinds of ideas?

  2. Robert-Thanks for this detailed account of food accessibility in Detroit. I do agree that large-scale grocery stores should not be the determining factor on whether or not Detroit is a "food desert." I would argue, however, that a closer look at the quality and selection of the produce, and the general environments of these smaller retail stores, need to be considered as well when considering issues food accessibility for Detroiters.

  3. Another interesting point: a good chunk of the 10% of Detroit that is a "food desert" is actually parkland. All of Belle Isle as well as much of Rouge Park is shown as a food desert in your maps. However, since no one actually lives there, it's not much of an issue.

  4. the master strikes again! i am starting to look forward to these posts even though i am not a detroiter!

  5. I was wondering if you could examine land usage/type more closely. It does seem to be park or industrial land. Also for some areas if you consider stores in towns adjacent these areas may not be a desert.

  6. To all of you that commented, thank you so much for reading and sharing your your great ideas with me. All of your comments are insightful and kind.

    @theroseycross- Thank you for your kind words. I'm not sure how to explain the negative media portrayals, however. My best guess is that a headline that reads "Detroiters have poor access to food in selected areas, great access in others" wouldn't sell many papers.

    @Caitlynpisarski - You raise a fantastic point. I know from experience that some of these grocery stores do offer food of sub-par quality. I don't know how to adjust for that, though. Yelp does offer some interesting reviews of many of these stores, but I couldn't find a universal rating scale.

    @FrankNemecek & m- Thank you for making that important distinction about residential areas vs. parks/industrial areas. I adjusted for that, to a degree, but I failed to explain that in the post. The total land area in the "food desert" category was 16.9 square miles, of which 3.4 was Belle Isle and Rouge Park. Of course, I should refine this adjustment, because even more land was the airport, neighborhood parks, or industrial land.
    As for your comment about neighboring communities, m, I whole-hearted agree. I will, as a next step, adjust this number to include neighboring communities.

    @Oana- Thank you so much for reading, and more importantly, for your kind words. As one of the sharpest mappers I know, it means a lot to me that you would say those things.

  7. thanks for this post - i've been frustrated by the term food deserts, and appreciate you views. while i do think that you bring up a good points, i also think it's important to note that while the licensing information might define places as full service grocery stores, many residents would not agree, at least by the standards for variety, freshness and cleanliness that national retailers have set. Honey Bee, while great is an exception, not the rule - many of these stores are dirty, and full of lousy product. certainly i don't think that large national chains are needed to provide quality food - if anything i think the opposite, but city residents when they do have access to food it is often substandard when compared to suburban locations.
    i wrote a post some time ago about food deserts you might enjoy.


  8. Thank you for a factual analysis without the politics and racism that seems to pervade most coverage about the City of Detroit! I really appreciate this information.


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  10. This is very interesting and revealing data-driven approach. I am left wondering, however, how it takes into account transportation access in Detroit. For example, it is important to recognize (as the article does) that some areas of Detroit have the density of grocery stores that you would see in the suburbs. BUT, since residents of the suburbs are more likely to have personal vehicles that reduce barriers to actually getting to stores, I'm not sure that we can conclude that a food desert does not exist in those areas of Detroit. It is much more difficult for low-income families to get/carry produce home because the trip often involves all-day rides to/from remote grocery stores via public transportation and you can't load up on groceries as you would if you had a car. What is said to be a "normal" food accessibility level is normal only in the context of suburbs. I'd be interested in reading a future article that examines these dynamics.

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