by Danny Devries and Robbie Linn – Research Analysts at D3
The recent announcement of the arrival of Whole Foods in Midtown, while bringing only one store, will help dispel the lingering myths surrounding Detroit’s food industry: “Detroit has no grocery stores.” “Detroit has no national grocery chains.” “Detroit is a ‘food desert.” This food desert narrative repeatedly suggests that Detroiters’ only option is the local corner store. The Detroit community has worked hard to dismiss this food desert myth, and we at Data Driven Detroit(D3) have newly available data to help Detroit tell the real story. However, food access in the city is still a complex and layered issue, one that requires multiple data sets to put it in context.
Grocery Stores Do Exist – We have 115!
By analyzing several data sources, including the National Establishment Time Series (NETS) data, D3 has found 115 full-service grocery stores within the city limits of Detroit. Additionally, this excludes gems such as Eastern Market and Wayne State farmers’ market. What we mean by full-service is that these are grocery stores in the traditional sense—large enough to offer a variety of products, with shopping carts and advertisements for fresh produce. In addition, these full-service groceries also lack the giant signs advertising cash checking, calling cards, and alcohol that typically advertise convenience stores. The presence of every one of these 115 groceries was verified using Google Street View. There is likely a variety of quality and selection amongst these 115 groceries, but their presence belies the conventional wisdom that Detroiters have no place in the city to buy food. A prior analysis by Robbie Linn has shown that much of Detroit is a “food grassland,” with only small pockets lacking easy access to groceries.
Another commonly held belief is that there are no national grocery chains located in Detroit because the buying power of city residents is too weak to support them. But again, the data show otherwise. Detroit is home to two national chains, Spartan Stores and Save-a-Lot, as well as one international chain, the German-owned Aldi (which also owns Trader Joe’s). True, there are no Meijers, Krogers, or Walmarts in Detroit, but Detroit is rich with both locally owned groceries and farmers’ markets of the type that other cities fight tooth-and-nail to preserve. Even Texas-based upmarket grocer Whole Foods recognizes that Detroit can support a national chain (albeit with $4.2 million in subsidies). While Detroit may not be a major market for food corporations to add to their bottom lines just yet, Detroiters have many food options at their fingertips, both within the city limits and in neighboring suburbs.
Food Access & Bridge Card Redemptions
Ubiquitous groceries are only one piece of the larger issue of food access in Detroit. Understanding how vulnerable populations currently utilize our city’s food resources is another essential piece to promoting equitable access and developing effective policy. Using data obtained from the State of Michigan Department of Human Services, we analyzed Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), also known as Bridge Cards, in order to track where Michiganders have been spending their food assistance dollars. Over $250 million a month was spent across the state through EBT cards between February and July 2011. Nearly $34 million was spent in Detroit, representing 13.7% of statewide spending. This does not mean that Detroit residents received only $34 million in food assistance; rather it means that 13.7% of all EBT dollars were spent within Detroit city limits. In fact, 28.0% of all Detroit households receive food assistance, compared to 9.6% of out-state residents (all of Michigan except Detroit). If Michigan residents spent their EBT money in the cities and townships in which they lived, we would expect to see double the amount of EBT spending in Detroit. It seems that Detroiters are spending a considerable portion of their EBT money outside of the city.
There are several different ways that recipients can spend their EBT money: convenience stores, food banks, Meals-On-Wheels, grocery stores, super stores, and, in some cases, even restaurants. Walmart attracts the highest amount of EBT spending throughout the state. In fact, of the top seventeen largest locations where EBT money is spent, thirteen of them are Walmarts. Out-state, 91.3% of EBT money is spent in grocery stores (including farmer’s markets, super stores, etc.), but only 79.1% of EBT spending in Detroit is spent in grocery stores- a 12.2% gap. Even though Detroit does have grocery stores, it seems that many Detroit EBT recipients are choosing to spend their money in places other than local grocery stores. Part of this 12.2% gap can be explained by the fact that many Detroit residents shop outside of the city for their groceries. According to the Social Compact DrillDown Report (for which Data Driven Detroit was a partner), 31% of all Detroi households’ grocery bills are spent outside of the city. In retailers’ language, this is called “leakage,” and signifies unmet demand for grocery stores in Detroit.
Another factor contributing to the gap between EBT money spent in Detroit and out-state groceries is the disproportionate amount of Detroit EBT money that is spent in convenience stores. At 18.7% of total Detroit spending, it is more than twice the percentage that is spent at convenience stores out-state. Whether this is because of an insufficient supply of grocery stores or the abundance and convenience of convenience stores is difficult to tell. While we do not know what the EBT money was used to purchase, most convenience stores lack the variety of fresh produce that can be found at a grocery store. However, some see the corner store as an opportunity for creative interventions. The team at Fresh Corner Café has been helping to stock Detroit convenience stores with fresh produce and bringing healthier options to the locations where many EBT recipients choose to shop. If this initiative is successful, it will spur more convenience stores to stock fresh produce and provide greater access for Detroiters.
EBT Redemptions at Restaurants
Although it is not a significant portion of spending, it is worth noting that 1.95% of Detroit EBT spending occurs at restaurants, nearly twenty times the percentage that is spent on restaurants out-state. Michigan recently changed the EBT regulations to allow spending at restaurants if the EBT recipient is aged sixty or older, blind or disabled, or homeless (i.e. populations that might struggle to cook for themselves). But in order for a restaurant to accept EBT, it must also be pre-approved by the state. Of the seventy-two approved restaurants, thirty-three are in Detroit, with twenty-seven being either Church’s Chickens or KFCs. While the Michigan Department of Human Services deserves credit for being one of only a handful of states to recognize that some people cannot cook for themselves, they limit access to healthy food for the most vulnerable segments of society by limiting the restaurant options to unhealthy fast-food restaurants. Recent articles in the Detroit News and USA Today suggest that fast food chains are lobbying in other states to be included as food-assistance redemption options. It is possible that Michigan has inadvertently promoted EBT as a potential and expanding market for fast food retailers by allowing a high proportion to be authorized as approved redemption points here in-state.
In addition to fast food restaurants, other food retailers are interested in the EBT market. In Detroit, many seafood stores circumvent the EBT restaurant regulations by selling fresh fish to EBT users and then frying it on site. This “You buy, we fry” model allows fried fish restaurants to masquerade as seafood stores, selling unhealthy food to poor households and circumventing the intentions of the EBT regulations. These Detroit fish fries earn over $668,000 a month through this loophole. Although restaurant spending is a small percentage of total spending, it represents a failure of public policy by limiting access to prepared food to only a few approved fast-food restaurants and then allowing “You buy, we fry” establishments to game the EBT system.
Detroit’s food industry often gets a bad rap, likely because of our region’s poor health indicators. Admittedly, death from heart disease in Detroit is 48% higher than the national average and the region also struggles with high obesity rates. In addition, the city is accused of being discouraging to pedestrians and lacking in public transit options. Although the average Detroiter is only .6 miles from the nearest full-service grocery store, getting to a grocery store can still be a challenge for those with limited mobility.
Nevertheless, the notion that Detroit has no grocery stores is a myth. To quote Dan Carmody, President of Eastern Market:
“Detroit is often described as a food desert… I would argue we don’t live in a food desert; we actually live in one of best food sheds in the country. The fact that we can’t get food from our market and other places into neighborhoods is a huge indictment of our distribution systems and a huge indictment of racial equity issues, but it has nothing to do with being a food desert.”
The problem in Detroit is not a lack of food; it is the way in which that food gets to our tables. The food desert label detracts from the situation on the ground and has the potential to distract policy makers, keeping them from finding real solutions. Detroit residents know the local food landscape best. Poor residents also recognize that local groceries do exist, spending over $27 million a month with EBT cards in Detroit grocers. However, they also show their dissatisfaction with their options by traveling outside of the city to spend their EBT dollars. In order to adequately address Detroit’s food access issues, the conversation must be data driven, and the solutions must address the facts on the ground, rather than prevailing myths.
Download the map packet!
Includes map of grocery stores, EBT approved grocery stores and EBT redemption per capita.
 Andrew Grossman. “Retailers head for exits in Detroit” Wall Street Journal, online. June 16, 2009.
 Sheena Harrison. “A city without chain grocery stores” CnnMoney.com, online. July 22, 2009.
 Stephen Gray. “Can America’s urban food deserts bloom?” Time, online. May 26, 2009.
 James Griffioen. “Yes there are grocery stores in Detroit” Sweet Juniper Blog. January 25, 2011.
 Robbie Linn. “Food Grasslands of Detroit” Mapping the Strait. February 1, 2011.
 Tom Carr. “Acme heads off shopping center, hears out Meijer” The Ticker. September 6, 2011.
 Nathan Skid. “Whole Foods moving into Midtown” Crain’s Detroit Business. July 27, 2011
 American Community Survey, 2005 – 2009.
 Social Compact. “City of Detroit Neighborhood Market Drilldown” December 2010.
 State of Michigan. Department of Human Services. Electronic Benefits Transfer(EBT).
 Detroit Works Project.
 Dan Carmody. Presentation at NNIP Partners Meeting in Detroit. Online Video.