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Food for Thought: Addressing Detroit’s Food Desert Myth

by Danny Devries and Robbie Linn – Research Analysts at D3

Our analysis of National Establishment Time Series (NETS) Data from 2010 revealed 115 full-service grocery stores in the City of Detroit

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.[1]” “Detroit has no national grocery chains.[2]” “Detroit is a ‘food desert.[3]” 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[4], 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.[5]

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.[6] Even Texas-based upmarket grocer Whole Foods recognizes that Detroit can support a national chain (albeit with $4.2 million in subsidies).[7] 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).[8] 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.[9] 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).[10] 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[11] 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[9], 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.[12]”

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.


[1] Andrew Grossman. “Retailers head for exits in Detroit” Wall Street Journal, online. June 16, 2009.
[2] Sheena Harrison. “A city without chain grocery stores” CnnMoney.com, online. July 22, 2009.
[3] Stephen Gray. “Can America’s urban food deserts bloom?” Time, online. May 26, 2009.
[4] James Griffioen. “Yes there are grocery stores in Detroit” Sweet Juniper Blog. January 25, 2011.
[5] Robbie Linn. “Food Grasslands of Detroit” Mapping the Strait. February 1, 2011.
[6] Tom Carr. “Acme heads off shopping center, hears out Meijer” The Ticker. September 6, 2011.
[7] Nathan Skid. “Whole Foods moving into Midtown” Crain’s Detroit Business. July 27, 2011
[8] American Community Survey, 2005 – 2009.
[9] Social Compact. “City of Detroit Neighborhood Market Drilldown” December 2010.
[10] State of Michigan. Department of Human Services. Electronic Benefits Transfer(EBT).
[11] Detroit Works Project.
[12] Dan Carmody. Presentation at NNIP Partners Meeting in Detroit. Online Video.

29 comments to Food for Thought: Addressing Detroit’s Food Desert Myth

  • Larry Traison

    Very interesting and informative article.

  • How can I download the map packet? This is great work, but there needs to be more information about the foods available in these grocery stores. I completely agree that Detroit isn’t devoid of locations to purchase foods and gain access to food, but the larger problem is the quality and freshness of foods available. Would love to collaborate on assessing Detroit’s “nutritional environment” along with your grocery store data.

    • kat

      Thanks for asking! The link at the end of the article is live…it will direct to the PDF Map Packet. You can also check out all our downloads from each month under the “Downloads” tab! Thanks

  • Rob

    The real problem is that a growing majority of the 115 full service stores have inflated prices, poor quality food (meats), and are located in “sketchy” areas.

    • kat

      The next step would be to gather data on the inventory of our grocery stores! Does anyone know any groups working on this? A community grocery store coalition was in the process of this earlier this year, but issues arose and it had to be shelved.

  • David Smith

    I have never seen a better market than Eastern Market, except possibly Les Halles, Paris.

    Good story. The grocery situation in Detroit might be better than Chicago.

  • This is a great article. The data really drives the point home. It’s not a “desert” issue, it’s a “Let’s get moving Detroit!” issue. I see it from both sides, local grocers don’t have the corporate marketing strategy to bring products to market that consumers want (it’s business as usual for a lot of mom & pop grocer family owned operations) which leads to consumer leakage to bigger corporate stores like Walmart where you have everything under one roof. The “You Buy, We Fry” issue is something that I don’t see going away anytime soon- perhaps if people demanded that “you buy, we broil or bake” this would be a healthier choice lol.

    I like this article because it’s right inline with what we’re doing at Detroit Urban Fitness. Check us out at http://www.detroiturbanfitness.com Go there and register and get a FREE Weight Loss Plan just for checking us out. Thanks D3, the information is timely.

  • Lefty

    I’m familiar with some of these “full-service” dots. Hmmm. Let’s not bend the data too much, ok? I understand the pressure that D3 is under to portray the city in the best possible light but there’s a very simple reason that us residents are spending our food dollars outside of the city. Too many of these “full-service” locations have limp lettuce, brown meat and are barely staffed. They’re also uninviting, poorly maintained and unsanitary feeling. I gladly drive six miles out of my way to a well-lit, clean store with better food.

    I’m thinking that selling carrots, onions and bologna does not make you a “full-service” place no matter what the official classification system says.


    • Paul S

      I totally agree with the comment made by Lefty. This survey treats every site as being the same and is assuming each one is at least fair quality. This is not the case.
      I can recall TV news investigations to document poor conditions at Detroit stores. Then there were the comments of Marilu Henner after spending a few weeks downtown for a play. To paraphrase, she couldn’t find any fruit downtown. If a casual visitor cannot find these items how can anyone else?
      There are low quality grocerys just outside of Detroit as well. But they don’t seem to last as long as the stores in the city.
      Your data may be correct, but these type of problems need more scrutiny than mapping stores on-line.

  • Detroit Sherpa

    But inside the city limits, quality, safety and customer service are abysmal. Carts under lock and key, crimeridden parking lots, mile-long lines, lack of public restrooms …

    When I came to Detroit in ’03 I told myself that I could live without these comforts for the sake of our city’s future economic development. But I gradually tired of being approached by panhandlers after dark and worrying that my car would be vandalized if I stayed in a grocery store for +10 minutes. Even at Mexicantown’s superb Honeybee market, these problems persist.

    Now I live in the suburbs and shop at WholeFoods, where I can get a cart and use the restroom without putting money in escrow. I feel like a sellout, but hey — gluten-free pasta!

  • Great Story! Unfortunately, it leaves out one important segment which not only adds some additional information that underlines the fact that the area is not a food desert but illuminates some of the key issues. Many east side Detroiters shop in Hamtramck which is an oasis of food emporiums and much closer to their homes than stores in distant Detroit neighborhoods or north of Eight Mile. No one could guess that looking at the map where Hamtramck looks like the barren,grey face of the moon. In fact it is the most densely populated area in the state. Daily and especially on Saturday, the streets are filled with Detroiters shopping in the many grocery stores, the meat, sausage and poultry stores, the wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetable markets, and the ethnic bakeries. (An astonishing amount of Detroit birthday cakes are purchased in Hamtramck) At the same time, just a few steps away from the food stores are doctors, dentists, chiropractors, optometrists and hair and nail salons as well as places to buy new school outfits, church hats and mother of the bride dresses. You can also furnish your house and get your computer fixed on Jos Campau Ave. All the prices are very competitive. There is little price gouging. There is nothing like Hamtramck’s walking shopping streets anywhere else in Detroit. Hamtramck’s residents have a higher poverty rate than Detroit. It is poorest city in Wayne County.

  • Jim Herries

    The EBT spending outside the city’s 115 stores is a clear indicator. Most people understand that a grocery store is more than the items it carries for sale. Food access issues are not solved merely by stocking the shelves and opening the doors each morning. Methods of payment matter. Security matters. Staffing matters. Finding 115 stores on a web site is not conclusive. Only a store by store survey of current conditions can qualify the 115 locations. I see in this commentary above people are all too happy to qualify their experiences, and what they do when presented a subpar option. It is called consumer choice. It is telling that, even when people are handed EBT benefits, these 115 stores *fail* to capture that local, subsidized demand. (opinions are my own, do not represent my company’s)

  • I am currently working on surveying grocery stores and other food locations using the “Nutritional Environment Surveys Measure” (NEMS) developed by Emory’s School of Public Health (hosted by UPenn now). Will definitely be utilizing the D3 information to help. If interested in helping out, check out the NEMS free course online to be certified (http://www.med.upenn.edu/nems/) and shoot me an email: alexbrianhill(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Archie Rawlings

    Your article seems to be based largely on the Google search engine. This is hardly sufficient for determining the quality of food in many Detroit grocery stores. There is a reason why Detroiters spend their dollars outside of the city – ask them!!!

  • William Ahee

    Most of the attention behind Detroit as a “food desert” came after the Mari Gallagher study which defined food desert by the need for residents to “travel twice as far or further to reach the closest main- stream grocer as they do to reach the closest fringe food location, such as a fast food restaurant or a convenience store.” How can you say Detroit isn’t a food desert without even defining what a food desert is? I personally don’t like that definition because the obvious solution would be more mainstream grocers, whereas in Detroit that might not be the case. Something like SEED Wayne’s Detroit Fresh project might end up being a major piece in creating a more just and healthy food system in Detroit.

    Furthermore, I have been to many of those “full-service” dots and I would bet you wouldn’t shop there. In interviews that I conducted with female EBT recipients around Detroit, I learned that there are about 4 stores in Detroit that almost all of them do their shopping at. What is more is that most people will go to at least two or three of those to get their shopping done. They know where has good meat, where has good vegetables and where to go for canned goods. They can’t find it all in one store in Detroit. Most of these women don’t have transportation, and the bus system in Detroit doesn’t cut it – I know as someone that lived without a car during my final year in Detroit. Many people have to get rides with friends or informal taxis, costing them more money.

    Also, Spartan Stores operates 97 supermarkets in Michigan alone. How does that make it a national chain? Save-a-Lot is a franchise, not a chain, and that is of consequence. There have been market studies done to show the viability of national chains throughout Detroit, but those chains haven’t entered for various reasons.

    The last note I will make here is that many of the individuals and organizations seeking to mend the broken food system in Detroit are now talking about it in terms of food justice and food sovereignty. There is a major difference between these and food security, and it would take up too much space to go into that here.

  • kat

    D3 wants to thank everyone for their thoughtful and engaged comments!

    As you all underlined nicely, the real point of the article is that the number of grocery stores is not nearly as important as how those grocery stores are used. D3, and many others, may have debunked the assumption surrounding a lack of grocery stores in the city, but there are certainly numerous important questions that we have not addressed . Our point is to ensure that policy makers do not get distracted by the food desert discussion, as it is only marginally helpful in addressing our food issues.

    Because data addressing the quality of grocery stores are currently unavailable and surveys take a significant amount of time and resources, we are admittedly limited in our current analysis. This lack of data is another point of the article you all helped to stress! Without accurate and detailed data, even with our extensive personal experience and testimony, it is difficult to prove to policy makers what we in Detroit are facing in respect to food security, access and justice.

    For any of you working out there on food issues and needing help with data, we would love to partner with you!

    Please feel free to contact us at askkurt [at] datadrivendetroit.org

  • Yolanda L. Baker

    This is not quite adequate for determining the quality of food in our Detroit grocery stores. We have Spartan food locations that take pride in serving the community. In my opinion as a Detroiter, I spend my money at one grocery store because of the superb customer service. I’ve lived in the suburbs attempted to shop in a nearby grocery store to find myself traveling back to my favorite Spartan Market located in the “Heart of the City” I also feel safe when loading my groceries. Please ask Detroiters where they spend their dollars for a more accurate poll versus using a Google search engine to determine the statistics!!!

  • Allen Wolf

    It’s always nice to see the facts. It seems logical that spending at convenience stores is higher in Detroit than outstate because so many people don’t have cars in the city. Well-written article.

  • Princella E. Graham

    Thank you for you thorough research and opinion on this very important issue. One aspect of the “food desert” argument that needs to be included, however, is the quality and cost of the food available in the local grocery stores. As a 17-year homeowner in Indian Village, a prosperous Detroit neighborhood, I personally had very negative experiences purchasing meats and produce from neighborhood stores. I was not only appalled by the exorbitant prices, but also by the lack of concern many local grocers expressed when customers complained about untidy or dirty stores, and meat and produce that was obviously not fresh.

    Unlike many Detroiters without access to reliable transportation, I was able to drive to Grosse Pointe to get the quality and price of food that I…and everyone in Detroit…desired and DERSERVED! Even when a major grocery chain store, Farmer Jack, moved into our neighborhood on E. Jefferson, the quality of the produce was often FAR inferior to that of the Farmer Jack “Food Imporium” in Grosse Pointe. For example, I went to the E. Jefferson Farmer Jack one day to purchase green beans and found them withered and rotting. The produce staff brought out a new box of green beans and opened them on the floor…only to find the top 2 inches of beans were molded! When I complained to management and the produce manager, they expressed frustration that it was the store policy to purchase produce at the cheapest price…which, in some cases, meant purchasing the older produce from the “Food Imporium” to bring to the E. Jefferson store…AT THE SAME PRICE to the customer!!

    My experience was not isolated. As a consultant, I worked with a group of eastside Detroit seniors to increase access to affordable fresh foods. They had the same experiences with local/corner grocery stores and expressed the same concerns and frustrations…especially issues with cleanliness of the stores, high cost and freshness of the meats and produce…and lack of concern expressed by the grocers.

    Where your research discovered that a good percentage of food dollars are spent outside of Detroit, it would be good to explore and include the reasons for that trend. High cost and poor quality would drive any good consumer to a more reliable and affordable source…in or out of the city.

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  • Douglas Plachcinski, AICP

    You have access to intersting data, but I dont think you are presenting the most effective analysis. Your background information is lacking as well, and you aren’t presenting objective arguments from the other perspective.

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  • [...] stepped in to refute the claim. Last September, a report by think tank Data Driven Detroit found 115 full-service grocery stores in the city, not including the large and busy Eastern [...]

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