A decade ago, researchers reported that more than half of Detroit residents live in a food desert—an area where access to fresh and affordable healthy foods is limited because grocery stores are too far away. Efforts since then to bring more grocery stores—and food security—to predominantly Black neighborhoods haven’t worked.
But that’s looking to change.
Malik Yakini is executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a coalition of people and groups that promotes urban agriculture, co-operative buying, and healthy eating. His organization is helping Black people in the city take matters into their own hands by creating their own grocery store, The Detroit People’s Co-op. The grocery will sit in the city’s North End neighborhood, where about 92 percent of residents are Black and nearly 40 percent have a household income less than $15,000.
“We found that a co-op grocery store was imperative,” says Yakini, adding that the members began to conceptualize the co-op in 2010 after they surveyed hundreds of Detroiters on their dietary eating habits, wants, and needs. “This new store will give the people more control over the food they eat and its production and preparation,” he says.
Food deserts are usually found in low-income areas, forcing residents either to travel to the suburbs for fresh groceries or settle for one of the many nearby convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Since transportation and time is an issue for low-income families, the impact is a health epidemic. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black American adults have the highest overweight and obesity rates in the country.
Other cities similarly affected by a lack of healthy food options are looking for solutions. In Chicago, where about 600,000 people live in food deserts, the mayor has vowed to provide more fresh meat and produce options in the city’s South Side and West Side neighborhoods, but it’s been a struggle. Atlanta is converting lands into urban farms, and a local farm in New Orleans is combating food deserts by matching the spending of shoppers with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, up to $20. What used to be called “food stamps,” SNAP is a federal program designed to help low-income households.
In Detroit, the solution is coming from the neighborhoods themselves. Owners of the grocery cooperative will be the people who use it—neighborhood residents.
Kayla Phillips, 23, lives two blocks from where the new grocery store will be built. She immediately bought into the co-op with $200 after she heard Yakini talk about the grocery at a community gathering he organized a few months ago.
“Food security and food sovereignty in underdeveloped and urban neighborhoods is something that I’ve always been passionate about,” says Phillips, who can count at least seven fast food restaurants but only two grocery stores with limited produce sections within 2 miles of her home. “Because this new store is a co-op, everyone in the community can own it. That is amazing,” she says.
Local farms will be integral partners, particularly D-Town Farm, the 7-acre farm owned and operated by DBCFSN. Dispersed throughout the farm are African proverbs that relate to food and the culture of farming. Phillips volunteered to work on the farm and is in awe of the vegetables growing there: potatoes, squash, zucchini, eggplants, spinach, lettuce, garlic, scapes, and more. The new grocery store will be a way to get more of that food deeper into the city and to the residents who need it.
Tirrea Billings, a filmmaker who is profiling D-Town Farm in an upcoming documentary, says spending a lot of time on the farm made her realize how vital it is for more Black people to take part in co-op grocery stores. “A group of people in a nation who can’t feed themselves doesn’t have a future, that’s what one of the farmers at D-Town Farm told me,” Billings says. “The new grocery store will be a huge asset for the city of Detroit.”
And there are economic benefits. The Detroit People’s Co-op is not just about having access to healthy food, Yakini says. He hopes the new grocery store will be an opportunity to increase Black ownership in the city.
“In most Black communities throughout the United States, other ethnic groups own most of the businesses,” Yakini says. “And they function on an extractive basis as they take profits out of our community and circulate little of those profits to create jobs, wealth, and community empowerment.”
So cooperative models like this are needed in which Black people have ownership and control of the stores in their communities and can share the wealth, he adds.
“Co-ops are one of the ways to do that,” Yakini says.
Construction for the new grocery store is scheduled for March 2018. So far, the co-op has 140 member-owners, and Yakini says they aim to have 1,200 member-owners by the time it opens. He and the other DBCFSN members are holding community engagement meetings throughout the city that they expect will help meet their goal.
This article was funded in part from a grant by the Surdna Foundation. Originally written for YES! Magazine.