Food Deserts: How a Community Group in Detroit is Changing Ideas About Food

Editor’s Note: Continuing our Friday content partnership with Green Options, Jessica Jane French highlights the energy inefficiency and personal health issues that result from the centralised way our our cities are designed, going on to share some encouraging news that mirrors urban movements in other parts of the world. This post was originally published on October 2, 2007.

How far away do you live from the nearest grocery store? More than likely, you pass one on the way to school, two on the way to work and maybe even three on the way to the gym. If this scenario is something you can relate to even slightly, you do not live in a food desert.

According to The Low Income Project Team, food deserts are "areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food." This does not mean that people in food deserts do not have access to any food… just the stuff that is relatively good for them.

In fact, a food desert often has an abundance of "fringe locations," or businesses that do not serve the sole purpose of selling foodstuffs, yet where food is available (think dollar stores, gas stations, liquor stores, etc.). The type of food sold at these stores is usually the worst type of food, and when the only food available is pre-packaged, and full of preservatives, there are bound to be health risks.

In June, LaSalle bank sponsored a study that explored the nature of food deserts in Detroit, Michigan. Not surprisingly, what they found was a high concentration of food deserts. The report noted that "more than a half million Detroit residents live in areas defined as food deserts — areas that require residents to travel twice as far or more to reach the closest mainstream grocer than to reach the closest fringe food location."

Further, the study found that the people of Detroit were physically suffering because of their lack of access to healthy, fresh food. The study concluded that "as a group, residents in food deserts are statistically more likely to suffer or die prematurely from diet-related disease than residents who live in areas with healthy food options."

I don’t know about you, but these revelations make me profoundly sad. I have never known a life without farmers’ markets, Whole Foods and even the occasional roadside produce stand, so the prospect of living in a place where fresh food is so far away slightly boggles my mind. Moreover, the places that food deserts are the most prevalent are places where people have the lowest incomes, and are therefore more likely to not be able to afford transportation. Talk about adding insult to injury.

While the prevalence of food deserts in Detroit is disheartening, there is a silver lining to this awful reality. Local groups have been responding to the lack of fresh food by producing their own! The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) operates a two-acre site in downtown Detroit where they operate a very small, city farm.

According to Malik Yakini, a community activist, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and member of the DBCFSN,

"Our primary work is urban agriculture, urban growing in the city of Detroit…It’s a small-scale farm. We mainly sell the food, although we give some away to people in the immediate neighborhood. We’re trying to create jobs as a result of urban agriculture". - MetroTimes
What?! Good for the economy and good for urban sustainability? Now this is an example of people finding environmental solutions to economic problems.

"Where exactly do you find a farm in the middle of Detroit?" one might ask. Well, you make one! The DBCFSN practices soil remediation, or "the removal of pollution or contaminants from environmental media such as soil, groundwater, sediment, or surface water for the general protection of human health and the environment." In their remediation efforts, DBCFSN’s main project is removing house foundations from abandoned and grown-over sites, in order to prepare the land for tilling. As Yakini notes,

"Given the vast number of vacant lots in Detroit, we’re creating a model of how we can utilize that space…We’re trying to create greater access to fresh produce, generate income and create jobs and to change the community’s vision of what a city is and how space is used in a city. I don’t think we’re going to feed Detroit on vacant lots but we can grow 10 to 25 percent of the food and that’s a significant impact." 10-25% is nothing to shake a stick at! Given the devastatingly low access to fresh food Detroiters are witnessing now, 10-25% is a major improvement that will help to increase the health of Detroit residents. - MetroTimes
Like I said before, the DBCFSN is an environmental solution to an economic problem, which is why I believe it should stand as the model for other hurdles faced when trying to improve the quality of life in urban centers. Because conventional ways of approaching problems in inner cities have not led us to many successful conclusions, looking at alternative approaches — like the Local Food Movement — seems to be a proactive way to go about making the necessary changes.

In addition to utilizing the wisdom of the local food movement, DBCSFN is also drawing on staples of the Urban Environmental Movement through the creation of urban green spaces and the redevelopment of "dead sites." Needless to say, the DBCFSN’s efforts should be applauded. Not only are they making large strides for the people of Detroit, but they are also teaching the rest of us how to make sustainability tangible in even the most unlikely of places.

Quotes from Malik Yakini taken from an interview with Larry Gabriel, in his article "Life in the Desert" (Metrotimes, 2007)

Photo Credit: The New Farm

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  • Posted on Oct. 5, 2007. Listed in:

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