Detroit's Food Economy

Why Detroit’s Food Economy Matters

by: Laura Weber-Davis

February 4, 2013

detroit_food_retailer_example
Photo taken inside a Detroit food retailer by WDET staff.

"...Depending on where you live, depending on your race, depending on your economic situation... your quantity and quality of life is reduced depending on your access to high-quality food. And so that is a social justice issue."

- Malik Yakini



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How do we as a nation, a state, and a region ensure kids in Detroit are cared for? A growing network of advocates in the city say it has to start with something as basic as food.

Detroit has pervasive dollar stores, gas stations, pharmacies and liquor stores; retailers that also accept federal food assistance money. WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis reports those retailers, as the pervasive option for food in the city, have been linked to a variety of diet-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity and kidney failure.

Food Balance is a block-by-block tool researcher Mari Gallagher developed while examining Detroit's food system. The metric divides the distance a person must travel from home to a full-service grocery store by the distance to a convenience store with less healthy options. So say you have to walk or drive twice as far to get red bell peppers as you do to get potato chips, the food balance in your neighborhood is two. The greater the distance between the two locations, the greater the number. Gallagher says in Detroit, food balance is off the chart.

Guests:
Malik Yakini, Founder and Executive Director
Detroit Black Community Food Security Network
Mari Gallagher, Food-System Researcher
Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group

Go Deeper:
TEDxWindyCity: Mari Gallagher - Food Deserts
How Hunger Effects Kids & Our Economy


This series is made possible by the generous support of our Sustaining Members. Because of you, WDET can bring this critical story to everyone in our region.

Transcript
During his second inaugural speech President Barack Obama shared this thought…

“Our journey is not complete until all our children – from the streets of Detroit, to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown – know that they are cared for.”

So how do we… as a nation, a state, and a region… ensure kids in Detroit are cared for?

WDET launches a new series today…examining Detroit’s food economy.

As WDET’s Laura Weber-Davis reports… a growing network of advocates in the city say the effort has to start with something as basic as food.

Young children who lack access to a consistent, nutritious diet are socially and academically behind their peers by third grade… and may never catch up. That’s according to the Washington D-C-based group “Partnership for America’s Economic Success.” Advocates in Detroit agree.

Malik – Intro 1 “Many of us, including myself, view food as being a fundamental human right…” That’s Malik Yakini, founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He says the system that dictates how people get food and what they eat is a social justice issue… particularly in the city of Detroit.

“…So what we’re seeing is depending on where you live, depending on your race, depending on your economic situation, that your quantity and quality of life is reduced depending on your access to high-quality food. And so that is a social justice issue.”

Let’s tackle a controversial question; is Detroit a so-called “food desert”? Researcher Mari Gallagher authored a 2007 report called “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit.”

Mari – Intro 7 “It’s almost not appropriate to call it a food desert because of what use is it to say ‘Gee, most of Detroit is a food desert.’ That’s not even technically true anyway. But we think, for Detroit, it’s more important to focus on food balance and food in-balance.”

Food Balance is a block-by-block tool Gallagher developed. The metric divides the distance a person must travel from home to a full-service grocery store by the distance to a store with less healthy options. So say you have to walk or drive twice as far to get red bell peppers as you do to get potato chips, the food balance in your neighborhood is two. The greater the distance between the two locations, the greater the number.

Mari – Intro 4 “…and in Detroit, food balance is pretty much off the chart.”

Gallagher – a Chicago resident – assumed Detroit would be overrun with fast food chains that would throw-off the balance. Instead she found pervasive dollar stores, gas stations, pharmacies and liquor stores… retailers that also accept food stamps.

Mari – Intro 2 “When we looked at these USDA food stamp retailers, we found that they were actually linked, statistically, at a significant level to more premature death, by a variety of diet-related diseases…”

Such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity and kidney failure.

“ So that’s when we really started looking for a way to classify them even further. And that’s when we developed ‘Mainstream and Fringe’”

There are about 80 full-service “mainstream” grocery stores in Detroit.

Mari – Intro 1 “A mainstream store can be large, it can be a chain, it can be very small, it can be a corner store, if it has the kinds of foods that can support a healthy diet… A fringe food store is the opposite.”

A “fringe” store sells…

Mari – Intro 5 …Potato chips, soda, readymade hotdogs, Twinkies… I’m not demonizing a little snack now and then, I’m saying if you go into a store, it’s very hard to find something nutritious.”

Gallagher estimates about 9-out-of-10 food retailers that accept food stamps in Detroit are “fringe” stores. She says federally funded food assistance is an important market stimulus and creates food access for low-income families. But, she says, there are two glaring issues with the food stamp program as it relates to retailers.

Mari – Intro 3 “One is that, generally speaking, standards are too low to get into the program. Stores are not required, from our point of view, they’re not required to have the kinds of foods in totality that would supply a healthy diet on a regular basis. Problem number two is that many stores are not meeting even those low standards.”

In her report, she predicts without better access to healthy food, the long-term effects on Detroiters would be loss of productivity and quality of life, drive up health care costs, drive down school test scores, and damage the economic vitality of the city and region.

Mari – Intro 6 “Consider that we all eat regularly as part of the human condition… we can preach ‘eat your fruits and vegetables,’ but the reality is it’s hard to find the healthful food, so we can’t choose healthy food if we don’t have access.”

Malik Yakini says food is personal and often fosters emotional responses. He says that’s what makes the food system unique… and a system that transcends all others.

Malik – Intro 3 “…It intersects with transportation, it intersects with schools, it intersects with land use, it intersects with public health. And so, it touches on – if you did a webbing exercise – it just touches on every other aspect of society. So in that sense it has great power and potential as well.”

I’m Laura Weber-Davis. WDET News.