Detroit often is dismissed as a “food desert,” lacking accessible, affordable and quality fresh food.
The city’s grocers — and many residents — beg to differ.
“When Farmer Jack closed (in 2007), everyone said there was nowhere to shop anymore (in Detroit) and that just wasn’t true,” said Auday Arabo, president and CEO of Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers, which represents more than 4,000 stores in Michigan, Ohio and surrounding states.
There are around 75 full-service grocery stores in Detroit, at least 65 of which are independently owned, according to Arabo. A full-service store, he added, maintains at least 10,000 square feet of selling space with fresh meat, produce and dairy, as well as a deli counter, frozen and dry goods.
Detroit also is host to chain retailers Aldi, Meijer, Save-A-Lot, Kmart and Whole Foods.
“I like to call it ‘the food desert myth,’ ”said Arabo.
Bob Rossbach, spokesman for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said many grocers are combating that myth through investment. The DEGC, a private, nonprofit organization, provides some staff and assistance to efforts by city groups, such as the Downtown Development Authority.
“In the last three years ... there has been somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million invested in (independent) stores,” Rossbach said.
Banner Supermarket on Schaefer is undergoing about $6 million renovations to be completed next year. The University Foods store near Wayne State is planning to spend nearly $500,000 to add new equipment, resurface the parking lot and to rearrange and expand the aisles. Construction there is slated to be finished by the end of the year.
The DEGC helps publicize such efforts through its Green Grocer Project, a program created in 2011 to guide local grocers to money available for investment. The program is funded at more than $3 million by various public and private sources.
Mimi Pledl, program manager for the Green Grocer Project, said the efforts are having some effect.
“I definitely hear the term ‘food desert’ much less lately,” Pledl said. “I think the (store) improvements and awareness have definitely made a difference.”
Residents also are noticing. Annette Madison said she has seen the changes in her Midtown neighborhood, where University Foods is doing renovations and Whole Foods opened last year.
“It’s come a long way,” she said. “You have to take the time to come (into these stores) and walk around.”
The Whole Foods store represents a different type of Detroit investment: chain grocery stores. Meijer opened in the city last year, and a second Meijer “supercenter” is slated to open next year at the site of former Redford High School.
The chain stores are a mixed-blessing to many of the city’s independent store owners. Smaller stores can compete with pricing on fresh produce and meats, but bigger stores offer lower prices on dry and canned goods.
“Their buying powers are a lot greater than ours, so they get better prices,” said Nadia Atisha, manager of Old Redford Food Center near Grand River and McNichols on the city’s west side. Her 16,000-square-foot store is roughly two blocks from the site planned for Detroit’s second Meijer, which will clock in at 190,000 square feet.
Atisha said she hopes good customer service will keep loyal customers shopping at her store, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 27 years.
“We’re a family-operated store,” she said. “We know your name. We get to know our customers and our customers get to know us.”
Despite the upgrades and the new stores, some observers say issues remain for residents trying to access fresh food. They question residents’ ready access to the stores and their ability to find affordable products.
“The ‘food desert’ term isn’t really helpful because it doesn’t explain the issue,” said Alex Hill, a community health worker with Wayne State University. “You can put (in) a chain grocery store but you still have the issue of food access.”
In a city of under 700,000 people spread over almost 140 square miles, some less populated neighborhoods remain underserved, Arabo added.
“I look at the supermarket issue as very similar to what the mayor is talking about with trash and other city infrastructure,” he said. “You have neighborhoods that have one or two people living there.”
People living in sparsely populated neighborhoods often do not have a store nearby, which can make accessing fresh food a challenge. More than 20 percent of city residents lack access to a vehicle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
“The biggest problem is lack of public transportation that’s dependable,” said Arabo. “Detroit is just such a big city.”
Many residents opt to carpool.
“I have transportation, but a lot of people don’t,” said Betty Norris, 61, who lives near Belle Isle but often shops at Imperial Supermarket on 8 Mile. “If I’m going shopping, I call my neighbor and we go together.”
In some stores, self-run jitney services also fill in gaps left by unreliable city buses.
“They take people home for a fee after they shop,” said Atisha, the manager at Old Redford Food Center. “We make a copy of the driver’s license and car insurance, but they are self-employed.”
Atisha said customers can arrange directly with the individual for rides to the store.
Economic struggles also present obstacles to many city residents’ access to fresh food, Hill said.
“It’s not necessarily that they don’t want fresh food,” he said. “It’s just largely outside of their means.”
Approximately 38 percent of city residents were living below the poverty level from 2008 to 2012, more than double the national estimate of 15 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many local grocers have responded to their customers’ need for fresh foods at lower prices.
Four Detroit grocery stores this year are using Double Up Food Bucks, a program created in Detroit in 2009 and now featured at farmers markets throughout Michigan and Ohio. Customers who buy $10 of produce with bridge cards receive $10 toward the purchase of Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. The stores involved are Parkway Foods, Imperial Supermarket, Prince Valley and Mazen Foods.
“A lot of stores are trying to push healthy eating,” Arabo said.
Despite issues faced by Detroit’s grocery industry, those involved say continued investments and awareness hint at an eventual end to Detroit’s “food desert” narrative.
“People also said downtown was a ghost town, the Cass Corridor would always be blight and Livernois would never be a retail strip again,” Rossbach said. “These negative myths about Detroit are just dropping by the wayside.”