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Detroit’s search for righteous food

By Myra D. Lee

“In 2010, according to liquor license data provided by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, Detroit leads the state in liquor sales and active liquor licenses. Not only does Detroit have the most active liquor licenses of any local jurisdiction, but the city’s liquor stores, bars and alcohol-serving restaurants have higher liquor sales than any city or county in the state.”

Imagine if each Detroit liquor store partnered with a local farmer. Currently, 1.5 billion of retail dollars leak from the city each year, which is an estimate of 30 percent of Detroiter’s annual residential expenditures. There are over 800 fast food restaurants and over 400 liquor stores in Detroit today, but in 2011, according to the state of Michigan, it has been recorded that Detroit only has 111 full-service grocery stores, 58 butchers/fish markets and 20 produce markets. Imagine if there were more Detroit grocery stores and produce markets than liquor stores and all Detroit fast food restaurants supplied fresh produce on their dollar menu.

In regards to “food” as just one retail category in the city, more than $200 million is said to be spent on groceries by Detroiter’s, outside Detroit, which is currency that is placed in suburban grocer’s pockets and profit leaving Detroit grocers such as James Hooks from Metro Foodland, who do supply fresh and healthy produce but is not competitively marketed compared to a local McDonald’s or Burger King, or a local neighborhood liquor store. For those Detroit consumers who have contributed to that $200 million leakage outside the city, I ask that you to take into account that Detroit’s independent grocers employ more than 2,000 people per year, 61 percent of which live within their surrounding communities. This means those consumers are perpetuating the oppressive cycle that is disguised through American dollars and cents to control and manipulate underserved communities to think they cannot receive quality and fresh food in their own neighborhood or in their own city or from their local farmer or grocer.

The term “food desert” is used to enable and manipulate Detroiters to think Detroit lacks healthy nutritious food, but the truth is Detroiters are not widely informed on where to get this “liberated food” that can be affordable, accessible and GMO-free. Between family and friends and even political campaigns we speak of education only through the thin lens of math, science and reading but as a population we still forget that nutrition and food literacy is what we must value and to begin to create as a village/community curriculum model in order to build a generation that focuses on nurturing a food-system that is not a “transactional system,” but a system that is organized around nutrition, not profit. We must ask ourselves: Where can we find this type of righteous produce?

The Detroit Food Policy Council has undertaken the “Food Finder Project.” The Food Finder is an online mapping tool that will be mobile phone accessible and identify Detroit’s resources and facilities that provide healthy food such as emergency food providers, WIC and Snap destinations, where EBT cards are accepted, community gardens/farms, garden resource program sites and classes, local food banks, mobile food trucks, etc. This tool will also provide instructions and resources on how individuals can be their own food liberator and be their own healthy food supplier. This tool will also provide interactive features for community members to evaluate and grade their local grocery store.

One outcome that has come from this design will be to organize a forum or advisory committee to allow open dialogue between grocery store owners and community members to make sure both sides reach an understanding on the other’s challenges and issues. As a council we feel it is important we begin to build this bridge of communication in order to empower community leaders to let Detroit grocers know what is requested from the community and at the same time allow grocers to feel community support and respect. We are trying to create in Detroit “community grocery stores” and break down the walls that separate grocer from resident and influence what food is placed on the shelves and begin an era where food sovereignty is celebrated. As chair of this project, I would like the Food Finder to be the “Better Business Bureau” for Detroit’s food and just one action out of many to serve Detroiters by providing access to righteous, sovereign food.

To join this initiative or for more information, contact Cheryl Simon, Detroit Food Policy Council coordinator, via e-mail at or by phone at 313.833.0396.

Myra D. Lee is the director of Sustainable Communities and Healthy Food Access for the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation and a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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