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Detroit Shoppers Look for 'Better' Food Choices

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By Eric T. Campbell, Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen –

DETROIT — Detroit residents spend millions of dollars annually outside the city on groceries.

Food activists are attempting to reclaim that purchasing power by helping neighborhood grocers and changing buyers’ perceptions about local options — that fresh food is unattainable.

In December 2010, Washington, D.C.-based Social Compact, along with local partners the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and Data Driven Detroit, released a comprehensive report on Detroit’s spending habits. The report breaks down how Detroit residents are leaving their neighborhoods for necessary food items, taking $200 million in grocery money and spending it outside the city.

Kami Pothukuchi, Wayne State University professor and vice chair of the Detroit Food Policy Council, says there are several reasons, including greater options, that people shop for their food outside city limits.

“People perceive more choices and better quality outside the city,” Pothukuchi told the Michigan Citizen.

According to Pothukuchi, many people equate greater quality with name brand products found only in larger chain markets.

Other shoppers are forced to put price ahead of nutrition. One third of food dollars spent in Detroit are generated by federal assistance.

“If you are a bridge card shopper, you have to make some very rational decisions,” says Pothukuchi, who was instrumental in preparing the 2010-11 Detroit Food Policy Council’s Food Report. “A tight budget will force you to maximize for calories and energy-dense foods versus produce. And trying to make sure kids don’t waste, you buy what you know they will eat.”

Pothukuchi says little data has been accumulated indicating Detroiters are aware of the options that do exist within city limits. The Social Compact report estimates “the existing 81 full-service grocery retailers capture 69 percent of Detroit households’ grocery expenditures.” That doesn’t include the expanding number of farmers markets that accept bridge cards, incentivizing Michigan-grown produce.

DEGC Vice President Olga Stella is part of a group working with grocers and the city of Detroit to keep shoppers in the city by improving the product. The quasi-governmental body has spearheaded a program called the Green Grocers Project to get more capital and marketing resources to full-service grocers. According to Stella, of the $200 million that leaves the city annually, $90 million consists of food assistance resources.

“There are some components of this grocery leakage that has to do with the perceived quality of stores,” Stella says. “But another component has to do with residents who work outside the city and are shopping on the way back in.”

Stella says the DEGC has focused on existing Detroit grocers who need a financial boost to expand and increase the quality and variety of food offerings. She says the independently-run full-service grocers in Detroit are at a disadvantage compared to well-known chains. But store-owners have shown a desire to compete.

“There is no cookie cutter solution; every neighborhood is unique,” Stella says, giving Metro Foodland and Family Fair Supermarkets as successful examples. “But residents should have the full spectrum of opportunities. People will start to change their opinion about what’s available in their neighborhoods.”

Despite a number of smaller Black-owned food outlets in the city, such as Goodwells Market near the campus of Wayne State, Metro Foodland Supermarket on Detroit’s west side is often cited as the only Black-owned, full-service grocer in the city. (The Social Compact study defines a full-service grocer as one with 20 or more employees and/or of 10,000 square feet in size. Smaller stores may qualify as full-service grocers, if they provide food in the categories of fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, and breads.)

Metro Foodland owner James Hooks is known for keeping an exceptionally clean store and being on a first name basis with many of his customers. Hooks says grant monies from the DEGC and the Green Grocer Project have helped him add programs during difficult economic times.

“Everybody says the food business is recession-proof, but it’s not,” Hooks told the Michigan Citizen, adding that recent inflated gas prices affect spending across the board. Hooks has continuously improved his selection of specialty foods to reflect health trends, including signs in food aisles describing the health benefits of particular foods. Terms like “organic,” “gluten-free” and “non-dairy” are appearing in the aisles at Metro Foodland. Hooks wants Detroiters to know that food options do exist in the city, including his health rewards program.

“It’s to let people know we have items in the store that people might normally go to Whole Foods for,” Hooks says. “Some of that money is going to the suburbs because people don’t think we have those products.”

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