Look up Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, in USDA’s Food Environment Atlas and it is obvious that local residents have some significant challenges in accessing healthful food. An alarmingly high number of households that lack a car in Wayne County are located further than one mile from the closest grocery store, meaning that many families struggle to get access to fresh and healthy food. Indeed, the closure of two supermarkets in 2007 left Detroit as the largest city in the country without a single full-service supermarket within its boundaries. A recent study indicates that over half a million of Detroit’s residents live in neighborhoods where they must travel twice as far to reach a grocery store than they do to reach a convenience store. As a result, many families are forced to buy their meals at these convenience stores, where microwavable pre-prepared meals and fast food are well-stocked, and fresh and healthy foods are often hard to find. Detroit, in other words, is a food desert.
But, there is good news! Eastern Market Corporation, one of the nation’s longest operating public markets has taken on the challenge of addressing Detroit’s significant food access issues. Eastern Market has developed a comprehensive “food hub,” coordinating aggregation and distribution for many of Michigan’s small and mid-size farmers who are producing the healthy food that Motor City residents need and want. With nearly 500,000 of Wayne County’s 1.9 million residents relying on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for their food purchases, the market director knew that it was important to ensure that his organization could process SNAP benefits. Today, Eastern Market processes up to $30,000 of SNAP transactions per month. What’s more, SNAP benefits redeemed at Eastern Market are doubled for each participating household with the support of the Fair Food Network, an organization that provides a financial match to SNAP redemptions through its Double Up Food Bucks program.
As part of the USDA’s interest in examining how actively coordinated food hubs can play an important role in eradicating food deserts, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has partnered with Eastern Market through a cooperative research agreement to expand the availability of fresh, healthful and locally-produced food throughout Detroit. Our to-do list includes:
- Developing more direct-to-consumer marketing activities in neighborhoods challenged by poor public transportation systems;
- Training farm vendors about emerging opportunities for direct-to-consumer sales in food desert neighborhoods;
- Facilitating deliveries between the region’s local growers and organizations who are dedicated to distributing fresh, healthful food directly to Detroit’s neighborhoods in need; and,
- Educating local residents about available nutrition assistance programs and emerging market outlets.
As a food hub, Eastern Market is uniquely positioned to serve all people in Detroit while economic benefits to local farmers, ranchers, and dairies. Eastern Market and its member tenants provide a bevy of wholesale services that open new markets for the region’s small and midsize producers—including aggregation, distribution, processing and commercial market opportunities. Eastern Market also houses prepared food businesses (like ravioli and fresh salsa). They’re even planning to redevelop a full square mile in a dedicated economic development district to bring in additional business incubators, restaurants, retailers, wholesale services and a distribution center – all designed to help rebuild southeast Michigan’s regional food system and eliminate Detroit’s food access problems.
By integrating all of these diverse business functions into one centralized, coordinated regional “food hub,” Eastern Market’s business development model can be expected to bring good things to Detroit.