Detroit’s Food Cooperatives Offer One of the Solutions to Food Deserts and Food Insecurity

By Dennis Archambault

The growing season is well underway, and with it growth in access points for fresh food in Detroit. The opening of two community-based food cooperative grocery stores in under-resourced areas of Detroit is one of the solutions to food deserts and alternatives to food swamp providers like convenience stores and gas stations. The Abbott Resource Center, a cooperative located in the Brightmoor neighborhood, and the Detroit Peoples’ Food Co-op, in the North End neighborhood, both opened this spring.

Cooperative enterprises date back to the 1800s and had a resurgence as social enterprises in the 1960s. The Detroit Peoples’ Food Co-op grew out of a movement to create greater Black food sovereignty in a city with vast tracks of food deserts and concentrations of food swamps, with a small network of independent grocers scattered across the city. Both cooperatives are community-purposed, with a grocery store selling quality edibles – much of it organic and locally sourced – on the first floor and community meeting and service space on the second floor. A community engagement manager for the Detroit People’s Food Co-op jokingly referred to her store as “Whole Foods North,” referring to the Whole Foods store on Mack and Woodward, which has a reputation for more expensive and in some cases exotic high-end products.

The stores also have a community development component. They offer jobs for local residents, and source their products from local farmers and food processors, as well as other sources. They answer the question, “where do you go for good food,” for those who live in the area, particularly those who may need to walk to the store.

Food insecurity, and the lack of access to nutritious food, has been a problem in Detroit for several years. It is estimated that three in four residents experience food insecurity due to limited access to grocery stores that provide fresh and nutritious food and transportation to get to stores like Spartan independent grocers or the larger Meijer’s. It’s not a problem unique to Detroit. Many urban areas, blighted and otherwise abandoned by quality food providers, have been left with few good food providers – and their residents malnourished as a result.

“Access to fresh and healthy food is limited for over 40.5 million Americans living in USDA-designated food deserts nationwide,” according to Forbes magazine. The business publication, though, was not looking at nutrition or social equity as much as it was looking at a market solution to a social problem. “Food hubs like markets and co-ops can increase food access, economic growth and equity, but can also act as a gathering place that brings people together from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.”

As philanthropic organizations look at being critical components for social enterprise investment, Priority Health Total Health Foundation, which funded the establishment of the Ruby Cole Community Kitchen at Authority Health’s Popoff Family Health Center, provided a significant grant to help Abbott Resource Center develop its co-op. Otherwise, it can take years, and a steadfast commitment to the ideology – as was the case with the Detroit People’s Food Coop.

“We were fully on board with transforming their food pantry (Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry,) into a food coop because food coops move away from a charity model to a social change model,” according to the foundation. “Food coops provide pride of ownership and involvement and decision making by the residents who they serve. This coop will provide a form of economic security and also promote economic development by emphasizing job creation and small business support.”

If other philanthropic organizations were to come together and each commit to developing cooperatives in underserved areas of Detroit, our efforts to combat food insecurity would be much further ahead.

Dennis Archambault is Authority Health’s VP of Public Affairs 

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