August 7, 2014 at 7:11 am

Food desert a myth, but food security issues aren't

The iconic “food desert” image of Detroit was generated by many national media outlets whose reporters spent a short amount of time to churn out another sad story about the city’s decline. These reporters didn’t take the time to visit or understand the extent of Detroit’s food system: nearly 80 full-line grocery stores, 14 farmers markets, almost 500 community gardens, food pantries, restaurants and more. These numbers show there is a plethora of food options that are dispersed fairly evenly across Detroit.

In a survey conducted last summer (, my colleagues and I found that of the 77 full-service grocery stores in the city, all carried at least 15 varieties of fruits and vegetables while the majority carried 20 varieties.

Those varieties of fruits and vegetables surveyed were identified as being of good quality more than half the time, which means no bruising, brown spots, or rotting. The research notes that independent grocery stores have smaller produce sections and have far less turnover than the larger chain grocery stores like Meijer or Kroger. As a result, produce in the smaller departments sits longer, giving shoppers limited choices on better quality fresh produce.

While Detroit has lost a significant amount of retail grocery capacity since the 1950s, it also has lost a significant number of residents. The economic downturn since then has affected city residents disproportionately over time. In interviews with 25 different food advocacy leaders in the city, the top two issues identified for food access were income and transit.

Presently, more than 30 percent of city residents rely on SNAP (food stamps).

Almost 40 percent live below the poverty line in Detroit, with unemployment at about 20 percent and the median income at $26,955 (Census Quickfacts, 2011). Vehicle ownership is low and Detroit lacks an adequate public transit system. These are significant barriers to access the quality foods already in Detroit.

Detroit could be called a “food desert” for the simple fact that getting to healthy food, paying for it, and keeping it on the table is not an easy task for many residents. There are plenty of places where Detroit residents can go to find fruits and vegetables, but it is a hard choice when they have to decide between the water bill and fresh produce. For some, the time it takes to get to the store and go grocery shopping is too great of a burden after a long day’s work. These issues of food access and food security need to be systematically addressed by more than a few new grocery stores.

Alex B. Hill, a project coordinator/ community health worker at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, has been working on childhood obesity and researching healthy food access for past five years.