[ I’m delighted to be able to share with you today a story from Jim Griffioen, a simply wonderful writer living in Detroit and author of Sweet Juniper, which is not exactly an urbanist blog, but like everything in Detroit is simply unlike anything else out there – and in a good way. I know you’ll enjoy it – Aaron. ]
I’m just one of about 800,000 people still living in the city of Detroit, Michigan, the nation’s 11th most-populated city. Because of the events of the last half century, this is a city that journalists and academics love to examine and study. In focusing on the sensational, they often concoct maddening generalizations about what they’ve found here. In the time I’ve lived in Detroit, I’ve come to realize that the most sensational claims and the public perception they create often have little to do with the day-to-day reality of being a Detroiter. This is a complicated city, and even in the most sincere efforts to cull some truth from it, visiting journalists often end up spreading damaging falsehoods.
One of the most annoying is that Detroit has no grocery stores.
This is something that I have been hearing about for many years. While attending law school in nearby Ann Arbor, I was told that everyone who lives in Detroit has to go to the suburbs to do their grocery shopping. With the recent spate of journalists visiting Detroit, this “fact” has gained even more traction. NBC’s Chris Hansen recently took some time away from his grueling schedule of catching predators to draw attention to how difficult it is to find groceries in Detroit: “There are more than 400 liquor stores in Detroit. But if you want to buy food, good luck. In the entire 140 square miles of the city, there are no Krogers, no Safeways, only eight supermarkets, and they’re discount stores.” (Dateline NBC, April 20, 2010). Andrew Grossman of the Wall Street Journal emphasized that Detroit lacks “chain” grocers: “No national grocery chain operates a store here. A lack of outlets that sell fresh produce and meat has led the United Food and Commercial Workers union and a community group to think about building a grocery store of its own.” (WSJ, June 16, 2009) And most recently, Richard C. Longworth (senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former Distinguished Visiting Scholar at DePaul University) writes in Good Magazine: “This seems incredible—a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket—but it’s true. No A&P. No Meijer’s. Not even a Wal-Mart. Any Detroiters who want fresh store-bought fruits and vegetables or wrapped meats have to get in their car and drive to the suburbs. That is, if they have a car.”
I’m tired of being nice about this. That is such utter and total bullshit.
I know the traditional media is suffering. Reporters are overworked and underpaid. Scholars like Mr. Longworth, too, might not have the research assistants they once enjoyed, but I would certainly expect anyone who makes an unequivocal statement like Detroit “is a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket” to at least have done a 4-second google search to confirm it (six seconds, I guess, if google isn’t your homepage). In four seconds, here’s what I found:
Each of those orange dots is a supermarket, not a liquor or discount store. A couple of them are even Aldi stores, a chain supermarket operated by the same company that owns Trader Joes. Many of those dots represent “Spartan Stores,” associated with a regional food distributor that “supplies 40,000 private label and national brand products to nearly 400 independent grocery stores.” A quick search on the Spartan website shows how many affiliates exist within Detroit city limits:
What surprises most people who’ve heard that there are no grocery stores in Detroit is that there are actually independent stores far more appealing than any chain. One of the nicest grocery stores in Detroit is Honeybee La Colmena (I wrote an extensive profile about the store here). Honeybee is owned and operated by individuals who grew up and still live in the neighborhood where the store is located and they have created dozens of jobs for their neighbors. Honeybee has some of the best produce and prepared foods in the metro area, and it is actually a Detroit supermarket where people from the suburbs come into the city to shop.
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The myth of a city without supermarkets is hard to kill, even faced with the evidence above. Ultimately, that myth perseveres because the mainstream media and its audience is steeped in a suburban mentality where the only grocery stores that really seem to count are those large, big-box chain stores that are the only option in so many communities these days, largely because they have put locally-owned and independent stores like the ones you find in Detroit out of business. It is true that the big chain stores have forsaken or ignored Detroit, for any number of understandable (and sometimes despicable) reasons. But in their absence, a diverse system of food options has risen to take their place, and the tired old narrative that Detroit has nowhere to shop for groceries needs to be replaced by a more complex truth: with a diversity of options ranging from the dismal to the sublime, Detroit may be one of the most interesting places in America to shop for food.
Much has been written about urban farming in Detroit. No one really believes these tiny farms will ever sustain the produce needs of an entire city, but few doubt that they will continue to play an important role in the city’s transformation and they will only grow in importance as an integral part of the city’s food culture. The vegetables and fruits grown in Detroit’s gardens are so bountiful that neighborhood produce stands pop up; a coalition of inner-city gardeners sells thousands of pounds of affordable produce almost daily during the growing season at local farmer’s markets. Soup kitchens and schools supply their own produce from extensive and expertly farmed plots. In 2010, several Detroit farmers banded together to start the first CSA deliveries consisting entirely of produce grown in the city. Small-scale farming in Detroit has actually become a viable part of the urban food system and not just a novelty as it is in other cities.
Most Detroiters are keenly aware of the Saturday public market in the newly renovated turn-of-the-century market sheds, where as many as 40,000 people come downtown to shop for fresh local produce every week, and many have been doing it for decades. “If all these reporters are right when they say Detroiters have to travel to the suburbs to buy fresh produce, why do 15,000 or more suburbanites drive down here every weekend to buy fresh produce?” asks Mr. Carmody. The Eastern Market Corporation has worked hard to make the produce sold by its vendors accessible to all Detroiters. Saturday vendors accept tokens created through a program in effect since 2007 where shoppers can use their Bridge card to buy fresh produce. It has created the innovative “Double Up Food Bucks” program that “provides families receiving food assistance benefits with the means to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.” And the “Michigan Mo’ Bucks” program aims to stretch the amount of money families receiving assistance get when that money is spent on fresh produce. Eastern Market is not just for the overpriced localvore yuppie/foodie crowd, but it succeeds in serving the needs of all Detroiters. And nowhere is this region’s diversity on better display than a Saturday morning at Eastern Market, when tens of thousands of people from all backgrounds converge to buy fresh and affordable local produce.
What many people don’t realize is that Eastern Market buzzes with activity Monday through Friday. The wholesale business of distributing fresh produce to groceries and supermarkets throughout the region gets underway well before most people wake up in the morning. Mr. Carmody tells me that some of fanciest independent grocery stores in the metro area (Papa Joe’s, Plum, Westborn, etc.) all send buyers down to Eastern Market before dawn to pick out the best local and regional produce for their stores. That means the expensive tomatoes and apples sitting on shelves in suburban Birmingham and St. Clair Shores likely came through the “food desert” of Detroit. These wholesale buyers come to Eastern Market for local products first, before they head to the Produce Terminal (also in Detroit) for produce trucked in from California or elsewhere. As “buying local” becomes more and more important to consumers, so will Eastern Market and its longstanding ties to local and regional farmers.
James Griffioen writes a blog called Sweet Juniper. It’s not about Detroit specifically, just his ordinary life raising a family in that city. In 2006, he walked away from a career as a corporate lawyer and is now a freelance writer and photographer who spends most of his time raising his two young children. His photos and writings have appeared in Harper’s, Vice, Time, Dwell, O Magazine, Fortune, New York, Foam, The Baffler, Muse, Landscape Architecture and many other publications.