19. Access to Fast Food Vs. Fresh Produce as a Social Justice Issue: What if Your Race, Ethnicity and Socioeconomic Status Shaped Your Food Choices?

Author: Ilana Israel, Senior

The United States today is facing high levels of health problems including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. There are many factors that contribute to these problems, one of which is lack of access to healthy food. These health problems are found across the United States, however some areas are struggling more than others to find their way to healthy food and that is associated with these health problems. These food inequalities are especially prevalent in lower socioeconomic communities and ethnic and racial minority communities including Detroit, Michigan. The lack of affordable healthy foods in such communities is an issue of social justice.  Detroit is one of the major cities that is experiencing what has been referred to as a “ ‘food desert,’ areas characterized by poor access to healthy and affordable food, may contribute to social and spatial disparities in diet and diet-related health outcomes” (Beaulac, Kristjansson & Cummins, 2009). This is a term that is used largely by researchers, however it is frowned upon by some Detroit residents because of its negative connotation and the factors that are used in categorizing an area as a “food desert,” as elaborated upon in this paper.

  In Detroit the racial and ethnic inequality related to food access is very high. Detroit has a population of 706,585, 82.7% of that population is African American and 7% of that population is Latino. This makes the population of Detroit around a 90% minority population. Detroit faces the issue of one of the most racially and ethnically segregated cities in the United States ("Detroit quickfacts," 2013). The issue of racial segregation and socioeconomic division leads to where grocery stores and restaurants will decide to locate.  Living in a society where it is less expensive and more readily available for people to buy fast food than to buy healthy groceries to make meals contributes to a high rate of obesity in the population in the United States. This paper will focus on the issues and problems that Detroit faces when it comes to healthy food access including: what are the issues that are going on now, what current strategies are being taken to address these issues, and what are the recommendations for the future of Detroit to improve access to healthy affordable foods.

What are the issues that are going on right now?
There are many issues that Detroit is facing now in terms of healthy food accessibility.  The major problem that is occurring is the lack of healthy food in the urban areas at an affordable price. The lack of access to healthy affordable foods is leading to an increase in the amount of health problems. The major health issues that are being seen are diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The rate of heart disease in Detroit is 1½ times more common than it is in the entire United States (Schulz, 2013). The largest increases in health disparities related to diet are more visible in racial and ethnic minorities along with groups with lower socioeconomic status.

In the United States as a whole 38% of African Americans are considered as obese and 27% of Hispanics are obese, these are in comparison to 21% of the entire population in the United States being classified as obese (Baker, Schootman, Barnidge & Kelly, 2006). In the city of Detroit, one study reported that 70% of the adults and close to 40% of the youth are overweight or obese. Furthermore, it was found that close to 75% of adults and 80% of youth do not eat the adequate quantities of vegetables and fruits that are recommended by the USDA recommendations for a healthy diet (Baker, Schootman, Barnidge & Kelly, 2006). The increasing poor health of the population is a growing problem and can be directly linked to an unhealthy diet.  This paper shows how it is not always in an individuals control if they can eat a healthy diet and that is why healthy food access at affordable prices is so important. Plus this paper shows how racial and ethnic inequalities contribute to the lack of access issues and in turn lead to potential negative health outcomes.

The access to healthy affordable food in Detroit is a major issue that is facing racial and ethnic minorities. The neighborhoods in Detroit are very segregated by race and socioeconomic status. Some of the neighborhoods have been labeled as obesogenic, which is defined as an area where it is more accessible for people to buy foods that are high in calories and fat with low nutritional values than to buy healthy affordable food (Odoms-Young, Zenk & Manson, 2009). In the local neighborhoods in Detroit there tend to be small local convenience stores, that sell primarily unhealthy food.

In an interview with University of Michigan researcher Dr. Amy Schulz she said that one of the reasons that the local convenience stores lack healthy fruits and vegetables is because they do not have a fast enough turn around to be able to carry the fresh produce. They stock the shelves, but after a few days they end up with more food that has gone to the bad, which has proven to not be cost effective (Schulz, 2013).

There is also a lack of large grocery stores in Detroit and that proves to be a problem because people can buy food at a less expensive cost and closer to where they live by eating at a fast food restaurant. One of the major reasons that this has happened in the city of Detroit is because it once had large grocery stores that came into the city and they caused the smaller “mom and pop” convenience stores to close because they could not compete with the large stores.  When the large stores chose to leave that meant that the entire neighborhood was left without adequate food resources. It is important to note that the large stores chose to leave during the period of white flight and economic disinvestment, which is another example of the racial and ethnic inequalities that is faced by the African American and Latino populations in Detroit (Odoms-Young, Zenk & Manson, 2009).

When looking into the term “food desert” and learning that it is not regarded as a “positive” term to use when discussing the food climate in Detroit, researcher Dr. Schulz   expressed that the term “food desert” is normally defined by researchers when viewing areas that do not have supermarkets in close distance to neighborhoods where people live. Thus, this term is applied without recognizing that farmers markets and small convenience stores that sell food may be present in the area. Some people in Detroit talk about the huge variations that can be seen across the city and in different neighborhoods in terms of food access, hence the city as a whole is not a “food desert”. In some neighborhoods there are lots of stores to get produce, for example, the predominantly Latino Southwest neighborhood, whereas others there are almost none, for example, eastside Detroit (Schulz, 2013).

One of the major points that Dr. Schulz made was that there are many factors that contribute to a food environment. A food environment could consist of the quality of the produce, how people are treated in that environment (e.g., are they followed around when they enter a grocery store, always being watched), and the extent to which people are being exposed to unhealthy foods (e.g., visual aspects, seeing fast food advertisements and restaurants on every corner). Dr. Schulz mentioned a new term that is being used “unhealthy food swamps” which means that in some neighborhoods there is overexposure to unhealthy foods and low access to healthy foods. She said there are too many terms that over simplify and over look the many layers that go into a food environment. The major questions to consider in determining a positive food environment in a community are: can people afford the healthy produce, is it quality produce, is healthy food accessible or is the community dominated with unhealthy foods with poor nutritional values (Schulz, 2013)?

There have been many research groups that have come into the city to look at the food access that is available. They have done assessments such as grocery store audits, which include looking at the variety and quality of fresh fruits and vegetable sold at the grocery store and the affordable of the food for the local community. One of the major concerns that have been noted when researching different retail food outlets located in the city of Detroit is that most researchers gather their list of stores from commercial listings or governmental agencies and use them to create a neighborhood food environment. It has been brought to the attention of many of the researchers that it is important to realize that the databases being used to provide that information may hinder the ability of the researchers to get reliable data for African American neighborhoods (Zenk, Schulz, Israel, James, Bao, Wilson, 2005). This is because these databases do not show independent/ small-owned supermarkets. These tend to be common stores for people to shop at in these neighborhoods. There is also another major problem with these databases that they do not take into consideration that there are stores that are not typically seen as being a grocery store but which do sell groceries. Some examples of the stores that are excluded include: “dollar” stores and Target (Odoms-Young, Zenk & Manson, 2009). The two major problems above create challenges when trying to fully gage the healthy affordable food crisis that is happening in Detroit.

The large number of fast food restaurants that are located close to where Detroit residents live as compared to large grocery stores that are located further away, contribute to people choosing to eat at fast food restaurants instead of shopping for healthier food. A doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Shannon Zenk, did her thesis paper on looking at demographic factors in Detroit and how that affects the health and food access of the population. She found that in areas in Detroit that had a high level of African American population and houses that had low socioeconomic statuses had the poorest access to healthy fresh affordable produce. Where as in neighborhoods that were more multi-racial and had just a slightly higher socioeconomic status had better access to affordably healthy fresh produce. This shows that race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status divide the neighborhoods in Detroit and cause a difference in their access to affordable healthy produce (Schulz, 2013).

What current strategies are being taken to address these issues?
There are many programs that are going on in the city of Detroit to address the inadequate access to affordable healthy foods. Some of these programs consist of urban farming/agriculture, food carts, satellite farmers markets, and increased access to produce in local convenience stores. The goal for each of these programs is to give the local neighborhoods access to healthy affordable foods while still keeping a “community feel” that might diminish if a large grocery store were to be put in the neighborhood instead.  Each of these programs will be described in more detail below. 

The urban farming/agriculture programs in Detroit involve the utilization of vacant and abandoned lots to create community run or organization run gardens that provide fresh produce within the city boundaries. Many of the lots in Detroit have been vacant for years and the land is not being used. There is estimated to be around 500-600 community lots being used in Detroit for urban farming now, but some researchers say that until the government recognizes the benefits of urban farming and supports the locals who are partaking in urban farming, the community of farmers will continue to stay small. (Lachance, 2004)  Because of the lack of government policies the residents that are urban farming on vacant lots, they do not own, have no protection in instances of dispute with the landowners. Because many of the vacant lots they are using are still owned by the city and there is a lack of governmental policies to support those engaged in urban farming. There are many positive outcomes that come along with urban farming (Lachance, 2004). They include: providing learning opportunities to children, growing and providing nutritious food, and reinvigorating and beautifying neighborhoods. 

Many of the lots that are being used for urban farms are vacant and rundown lots, that are owned by absentee landlords or the city, where most of the time they are overgrown and covered with garbage. The lots when used for farming allows for the neighborhood to look more maintained and provide healthy affordable produce for the community. There are around 40,000-65,000 vacant lots in the city of Detroit and with the help of many non-profit organizations they have been able to create the community gardens (Lachance, 2004). The majority of the urban farms that are around today can be found on the eastside of Detroit, which consists of an African American majority.

Food carts are another new addition aimed at trying to create a better food environment within the city of Detroit. The concept behind these carts is that they travel through neighborhoods on certain days and times and sell fresh produce out of their trucks; this concept is similar to that of an ice cream truck. One of the popular trucks is Peaches and Greens and they sell fruits and vegetables in different neighborhoods on a set schedule during the week allowing for repeat customers and consistency for the buyers in the community (Schulz, 2013). This allows for lower income and racially segregated neighborhoods to access food more readily while decreasing the cost and time of transportation to a supermarket, which is often a great distance from where people live.

The third major effort that is being taken is to create satellite farmers markets in neighborhoods. In Detroit there is one of the largest farmers markets in the state of Michigan called Eastern Market, which is held on Saturdays. The idea with the satellite farmers markets is that they provide people who live in areas where they might not be able to travel to Eastern Market or they cannot make it because of the day, with smaller markets located in their neighborhood. These markets are done during the week in different locations around the city allowing for people to not travel far and still receive fresh local produce (Schulz, 2013).

Another initiative focuses on encouraging and supporting local convenience stores to sell fresh produce. Dr. Schulz says that this not only promotes keeping the money in the community, but allows for the convenience stores to carry the produce with more insurance that it will not go to the bad (Schulz, 2013). One of the projects that is working with the convenience stores is The Detroit Healthy Corner Store Initiative. This program is based on the eastside of Detroit (around 79% African American) and is working in conjunction with Dr. Pothukuchi and her students at Wayne State University to encourage and educate storeowners about the benefits of carrying more fruits and vegetables (Carr, 2011).

In addition to these programs, Michigan has a large food-subsidizing program with the goal of providing more healthy and affordable produce to people in Detroit.   The Double Up Food Bucks program allows residents to cash in their Bridge card money, formerly Food Stamps, for tokens that can be spent at farmers markets.  Through this program participants double the value on their bridge card money to purchase locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables at no extra cost. These can only be spent on fresh produce that is grown in Michigan. There are 13 farmers markets in the Metro Detroit area that are now accepting Double Up Food Bucks (Fair Food Detroit, 2013). This allows a large population to be able to afford not only healthy produce, but produce that was grown locally.  This is especially important in the city of Detroit because there is a 16.7% unemployment rate in the city and that means that more people use Bridge cards for food support. There are 1.75 million people in the state of Michigan that are receiving Bridge card benefits. There is a large population of those recipients in Detroit and the majority of them are African American and Latino (Fair Food Detroit, 2013). This is a direct correlation between unemployment and low socioeconomic status. 

What are the recommendations for the future of Detroit to improve access to healthy foods?
In the future there are many different aspects that need to be considered to help Detroit revive from the unhealthy and non-affordable healthy food climate that they have been experiencing for the past several decades There is the need to address the local availability of healthy affordable produce at the existing store locations, such as corner convenience stores. Dr. Schulz said, there needs to be an active food community in the future of Detroit. An active food community would entail many different dimensions including continuing the growth of satellite farmers markets, the food cart movement and increasing the urban farming. Her major point in regards to the food access for the future was that the food environment must be one where the healthy food is as affordable as the unhealthy food and just as accessible. She “hopes to see that all of the different strategies that are happening now continue to evolve and that allows people to choose where they want to go, they can choose to create a food environment with lots of options” (Schulz, 2013).

As discussed throughout this paper, the neighborhoods in the city of Detroit are segregated by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status and they need to be looked at individually when trying to provide assistance in creating a healthy food climate. There has already been work that is going on in the city of Detroit, but more needs to be done at the city, state and federal level to pass policies that promote and support better access to affordable healthy food within the city. An example of a policy that would help would be to have policies that provide funding to local convenience storeowners to expand their fresh food sections and provide tax breaks for grocery stores that agree to build in urban areas and to hire mostly local residents. These policies would help with the lowering of unemployment and increase the socioeconomic status of the residences, which in turn would reduce the racial and ethnic inequalities in health and food access.

In conclusion, the strategies being used to address the social justice issue of inadequate food access in the city of Detroit are heading in a direction that will create a better food environment for the population by assisting them in their access to healthy affordable food options. The programs that are in place to create this environment such as the food carts, urban farming/agriculture and satellite farmers markets are all stepping stones to creating a future where the people in the city of Detroit have the option to buy healthy produce for a price that is competitive with the price of buying food at a fast food restaurant. The increase in these opportunities and community support will help to improve the health of the population by increasing the amount of healthy calories and fats that they consume compared to the bad calories and fat they use to consume because it was cheaper and more readily available. In the future with continuing all of these programs and adapting to new programs and policies that might arise the city of Detroit is headed down a path that could lead other urban areas that are struggling with food access issues to look to them as a role model of change and success. Having organizations paring with members of the community allows for a support system to show the community that it is possible to live a healthy affordable lifestyle with fresh produce by partaking in different programs that the community offers. A fresh outlook for the future means fresh produce and a healthy thriving community for the city of Detroit.

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