Grocery Stores: New opportunities to promote fair food in the inner city

Author: Margaret Garry, Director, FFN Detroit Grocery Incubator Project

There is growing sense among the American public that our current food system isn’t meeting our needs. Nowhere is this more evident than in urban neighborhoods across the United States and especially in Detroit. These neighborhoods are increasingly turning towards grocery stores as a new opportunity to fix our broken food system.

Due to the scarcity of fresh food, most inner-city consumers live without certain products and services, pay higher prices for goods within the community, shop in outdated stores, or bear high costs of transportation to get to stores with quality, affordable goods.  In addition, residents don’t have access to the jobs associated with fresh food retail, and neighborhoods don’t have strong economic anchors for their shopping districts.

The lack of quality, affordable, fresh food coupled with diminished economic opportunity heightens a sense of social injustice in low-income, minority and inner-city communities.

Poor access to healthy food is linked to the growing epidemic of diet-related chronic disease across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, chronic diseases now make up over half of the world’s burden of disease. Chronic diseases include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis and dental disease.

Chronic disease is prevalent in Detroit neighborhoods: over 70% of adults1 and close to 40% of Detroit’s youth2 are overweight or obese. Rates of diabetes and heart disease are higher than state and national averages.3

The good news is that in Detroit, like many other places in the U.S., there exists a fundamental market demand for quality, affordable and fresh food. Indicators of this demand include the following:

  • Over 500,000 residents live in areas with limited or no access to grocery stores.4
  • The existing full-service grocery retailers in Detroit currently capture only 70 percent of Detroit households’ grocery expenditures. Detroit residents are spending close to $200 million outside of their neighborhoods.5
  • In the City of Detroit there are 10 grocery stores for every 100,000 people. For every 100,000 people in San Francisco there are 40 grocery stores, in Chicago — 42, in Ann Arbor — 23, in Oakland County — 23, in Wayne County — 26.6
  • Detroiters could potentially support an additional 583,000 square feet of additional grocery retail space. Depending on their size, that could mean anywhere from 8 to 20 additional stores.7

Encouraging the development of additional grocery stores in inner city neighborhoods is one way to leverage existing demand and improve health outcomes.

Urban areas that have taken the steps to locate grocery stores in inner city neighborhoods have met with considerable success. One notable state-wide grocery initiative in Pennsylvania has produced very encouraging results. A survey of Philadelphia neighborhoods where new supermarkets were opened suggests a positive impact on local property values; housing values received an immediate boost in value ranging from 4-7%. In areas where prices were trending downward, the trend becomes less steep.8

In addition, new Pennsylvania supermarkets serve as retail and economic anchors in their communities: job growth around five stores was measured after the stores opened, and in four out of the five cases, total employment surrounding the stores has increased relative to city-wide trends.9 Grocery store jobs offer steady employment and oftentimes offer benefits and career path opportunities. Additionally, inner-city independent retailers draw most of their employees from the neighborhoods surrounding their stores.10

Brown's Shop-Rite
Local produce sold at Brown’s Shop-Rite, Philadelphia

In Detroit, the Green Grocer Project works with existing supermarkets to make improvements and upgrade quality. The program, developed by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, offers technical assistance, loans and help with permitting, zoning and site selection for grocery store location and expansion.
Fair Food Network research provides additional support for policies that support grocery store development. This research, based on interviews and focus groups, was published in a 2009 report, “Healthy Food for All:  Building Equitable and Sustainable Food Systems In Detroit and Oakland.” The report finds that

  • Many neighborhoods lack markets that sell a good variety of fresh, quality produce and other nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.
  • In Detroit there is a strong sense of dissatisfaction with current shopping options.
  • New grocery stores top the list of most needed changes.
  • Adult residents want to improve their diets, seek better food access and cook many of their meals at home.

Given the data and progress to date, there is cause for optimism. There are many great examples of successful, high-quality stores already in operation in our inner cities. These stores are not only changing the neighborhoods where they are located but are also offering opportunities to change the grocery industry as a whole. They are beginning to tell a new story about how to create a fair, just and sustainable food system.

Honeybee La Colmena
Honeybee La Colmena Market, Detroit

In the coming months, Fair Food Network will introduce a pilot program designed to support these trends.  The Detroit Grocery Incubator will help ambitious entrepreneurs obtain the training and experience needed to increase the number of grocery stores in Detroit neighborhoods.  The program will include classroom training, on-the-job training, business planning assistance, and networking opportunities for a select group of grocery entrepreneurs. 

Go to for information and updates on the Detroit Grocery Incubator program schedule and application process.

  1. Michigan Department of Community Health, Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
  3. Michigan Department of Community Health, Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey.
  4. Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Detroit, Gallagher, 2007.
  5. City of Detroit, Neighborhood Market Drill Down.  Social Compact, 2010.
  6. U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder. Selected Statistics by Economic Sector, Sub-Sector, Industry Group, NAICS Industry, and U.S. Industry: 2007.
  7. City of Detroit, Neighborhood Market Drill Down. Social Compact, 2010.
  8. The Reinvestment Fund, Reinvestment Brief No. 4 – The Economic Impacts of Supermarkets on their Surrounding Communities.
  9. The Reinvestment Fund, Reinvestment Brief No. 5 – Access to Supermarkets in Inner City.
  10. Realizing the Inner City – Retail Opportunity:  Progress and New Directions.