Finding a big supermarket is next to impossible in many inner-city
neighborhoods. That means a lot of people do their shopping at convenience
and liquor stores, where there’s rarely fresh produce. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on one group’s efforts to get around
the grocery store problem – and help revitalize a neighborhood:
Finding a big supermarket is next to impossible in many inner-city neighborhoods. That means a lot of people do their shopping at convenience and liquor stores, where there’s rarely fresh produce. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on one group’s efforts to get around the grocery store problem and help revitalize a neighborhood:
(Sound of traffic)
Up and down this street as far as the eye can see are crumbling and burned-out buildings. This used to be a thriving business district. It’s where Vlasic Pickle, White Owl Cigar, and Lay’s Potato Chips grew into national brands. Today, the most evident sign of commerce is the prostitutes walking the street. Smack in the middle of this is Peacemaker’s International. It’s a storefront church where Ralph King is a member.
“Now if you look at it you see that there’s no commercial activity, no grocery stores within a mile of here. And our concern was that people had to eat.”
There are about seven liquor stores for every grocery store here on the east side of Detroit. Some people can drive to the well-stocked supermarkets in the suburbs, but many families don’t have cars, and King says the city busses are spotty.
“So they’re buying food at convenience stores or gas stations. And quite frankly, it just doesn’t seem a good fit that a community has to live off gas station food.”
That means processed, high-starch, high-fat diets that lead to illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Those are all problems that disproportionately hit African Americans, and public health researchers say those higher rates of illnesses are linked to the food availability problems in poor black communities.
Amy Schulz is with the University of Michigan, and she’s studied the lack of grocery stores in high-poverty neighborhoods.
“What we found, in addition to the economic dimension was that Detroit, neighborhoods like the east side that are disproportionately African American are doubly disadvantaged in a sense. Residents in those communities have to drive longer, farther distances to access a grocery store than residents of a comparable economic community with a more diverse racial composition.”
In other words, if you’re poor and white, you have a better chance of living near a grocery store than if you’re poor and black. Ralph King and the folks in this neighborhood want to get around that problem. So about three years ago, they decided to try and reopen a nearby farmer’s market. They turned to Michigan State University Extension for help. Mike Score is an extension agent.
“I thought it would just be the process of organizing some people, helping them buy some produce wholesale, setting up in the neighborhood, selling the food, and generating a net income that could be reinvested. And I was really wrong.”
The farmer’s market was a flop. Score says produce vendors set up in the neighborhood, but the fruits and vegetables sat all day, unsold. He says the problem was they were using the wrong currency. Most people in this neighborhood have very little cash on hand, and they need to use their food stamp cards to shop for groceries.
So, Score helped develop a plan for a neighborhood buyers’ club that can negotiate low prices by ordering in bulk. His business plan also calls for job training for people in the neighborhood.
“It’s going to give people who are chronically unemployed but who have some entrepreneurial skills access to food at a lower cost, and that enables them to think about starting restaurant businesses or smaller retail businesses. So that’s an important part of this project: in addition to getting people groceries, it also creates some job opportunities.”
It’s been a struggle to get the program off the ground. It took a long time to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a machine to read peoples’ food stamp cards. People have stolen some of the project’s meager resources, but Mike Score and Ralph King say they’ll stick with it until families in this neighborhood can put decent food on their tables. And they say they hope it can be a model that other low-income communities around the country can use.
For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.