Category Archives: Food

Food Deserts in Flint: What is Being Done?

The USDA defines food deserts as areas devoid of readily available fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. This sounds simple enough, but the causes behind this phenomenon are not exactly obvious, and finding the right solution is daunting, even on a national scale.1

Complicating factors are particularly harmful in a city like Flint and an area like Genesee County. There is the overlap of food deserts with the poorest neighborhoods, a lack of interest on the part of retailers, and transportation woes. But with renewed focus on the health concerns of Flint residents, several state and local organizations and individuals have spent effort and resources to evaluate the need. Some may be missing the bigger issue, but one just may be on the right track.

The Desert Landscape

In Flint nearly half the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket, a surprising number for any city in the nation. According to, there are 70,240 people in Genesee County who are insecure in their ability to get regular, basic nutrition. That’s nearly 17% of the population and above the national average.3 While it is convenient to pass over neighborhoods with low per-capita income statistics and blight because they won’t attract investors to open new stores, the realities of populations getting healthy, fresh food are much more nuanced. Conditions in districts such as those in north and northwest Flint are not well documented or understood by many urban researchers, especially those whose focus is solely on commercial development. That’s why at least one Flint researcher is taking charge of looking at a more complete picture, working at the granular level of documenting and evaluating the options for food choices among Flint’s residents.

Caught in the Middle

After the close of several grocery stores, including Meijer in Mt. Morris Township and two Kroger locations at 1916 Davison Road in the Washington neighborhood and 2629 Pierson Road, serving Bel-Air Woods neighborhood, residents in Flint saw a drastic change in the landscape in the eight short months ending in March 2015. While shrinking population and poor revenue arguably made these large grocery stores unsustainable, the impact was sudden and unwelcome for residents with few options before – and fewer after – the closures.

While one store has since opened on the former Kroger site at Davison Road, The Fresh Choice Market Place has met with mixed reviews citing high prices and inconsistent quality, though these issues frequently affect stores in less affluent communities on a national scale.

In 2016, The Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce was approved to receive state funding via the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to conduct a study. It focused on the suitability of locations for establishing and supporting retail grocers in Flint. Initial public statements suggest placing even a single major chain store in North Flint would be considered unsustainable. An alternative option would be creating two smaller-scale grocery stores while upgrading and sustaining existing stores in the north Flint market.13 A representative for the Chamber involved in the study said the report has been completed but would not comment further on the findings at the time of publication. While the study is supposed to guide the use of the $550,000 pledged in grants to aid Flint grocery stores by the state, the work so far seems to be preliminary, while the problem has persisted in Flint neighborhoods for years.

Several local efforts are also in their early stages. As of 2016, the North Flint Reinvestment Corporation has launched a community food investment campaign. Rev. Reginald Flynn, president the North Flint Reinvestment Corp. and pastor of Foss Avenue Baptist Church, has encouraged his own community to help raise funds and brought in consultant Atif Bostic with UpLift Solutions, a nonprofit group advocating the development full-service grocery stores in underprivileged communities.

While the idea of local involvement in working toward a solution is encouraging, publicly available information about progress on this project over the past 12 months has been scarce. Bostic’s provides no information about the project, instead, it loops back to an article on a news website.

Flynn, who could not be reached for comment as of this writing, does provide a little information at The website has a membership form and list of donors, but no timeline or location is set for the “North Flint Food Market” branded at the top of the flyer at the top of the page. If the stated target of 1500 sponsors is reached with half private donors and half businesses and organizations, this effort will also raise upwards of $560,000 to cover “start-up costs associated with conducting research the market analysis, feasibility studies, consumer surveys, business plan writing, site acquisition, local and state government licenses, applications, and permits, grant-writing, site visit travel expenses, and store operations and management consulting fees.”

That’s over a million dollars allocated, but so far, not a stalk of celery to show for it? Questions persist as to how the money is being spent, and when the mechanisms of these projects will become visible to the public.

Feeling the Effects

Meanwhile, many residents who lack convenient access to healthy food rely on corner stores and chain fast food, which predominantly sell nutrient-poor options. Few escape feeling – and showing – the effects. Genesee County is one of the state’s most overweight counties, and Michigan has consistently ranked among the nation’s 20 most obese states.4

While the convenience store and liquor mart have been routinely overlooked, one researcher may be changing the study of food deserts and their solutions.

A New Approach: Granular Research

Flint map indicating areas with need and suitability for small-scale health food retail interventions.
Red indicates greatest areas of need and suitability for small-scale healthy food retail interventions, according to Sadler’s report.

Enter Richard Sadler, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at MSU Flint. He has published several findings on the nutritional needs of Flint residents, as well as the effects of changes in the food availability landscape.

His study, published in the International Journal of Health Geographics in 2016 includes a new methodology that stands apart from the conventional efforts to woo big grocery stores. Conducted independently and without outside funding, Sadler’s study maps the actual number of healthy food items available in stores, and not just grocers. Every corner store, liquor mart, and market provide data points to chart the real availability of healthy food options throughout the city of Flint.

Sadler has been conducting local food research in Flint for the past eight years. While his studies have been made publicly available and are being utilized by both the Chamber of Commerce and the North Flint Reinvestment Corporation, he has even more intensive research to be published soon – recording data right down to the availability, quality, and price of all of the produce at all of the locations already mapped.

What are some of the indications of these precise studies? Sadler seems to suggest that building and beefing up supermarkets really isn’t enough, and this agrees with recent research published by National Bureau of Economic Research. Placing big-box retailers in nutrition-poor neighborhoods doesn’t seem to change people’s buying habits – often, the price point and selection don’t align well with the need.

Maybe big infrastructure projects aren’t the answer. And in light of his research, Sadler advocates leaner, more agile solutions that aren’t constrained by conventional notions of space, overhead costs, and profit and loss demands.5

Grassroots Efforts

The trend may be away from big-box solutions, and community organizations are getting involved in several aspects of creating solutions for the future of healthy food sustainability.

Retail on Wheels: Fresh Flint Mobile Market has attracted support from national, state and local health and community organizations, and it is doubly beneficial. The program connects nearly twenty local produce growers with consumers in underserved neighborhoods. Stops for its mobile produce stand are announced in advance on Facebook. Additionally, boxes of fresh produce can be ordered online and delivered to the door.

Grow Your Own, but Get Tested

Gardening: It’s one decision that can have immediate impact for a household. A conversation around urban gardens demands a study unto itself, and the suggestion may seem daunting for those who aren’t familiar with growing their own food. It’s important to have support when starting on a new venture, and many resources exist for gardeners.

A leading example is the MSU Extension Master Gardener program. In 2016 alone, volunteers numbered 3,991 and provided over 170,380 volunteer hours throughout Michigan. They are dedicated to educating and assisting with every aspect of private gardening, including environmental and health best practices, especially with regards to water conditions.

Another group focused on local issues is Edible Flint. They provide classes at a demo garden located at 5th Ave and Begole St, as well as service days and coordination for community volunteers. They also provide soil test kits for free to Flint residents.

Blight? Yep.

Clean water and good soil are not the only consideration for urban gardeners in Flint. On a recent tour of Ryan Beuthin’s garden in Mott Park neighborhood, the conversation about gardening quickly turned to groundhogs. Pointing to the abandoned and neglected yards within shouting distance of his own carefully tended plot, he explained that no barricade or trapping mechanisms can ensure 100% security from the pests. When blight happens, the groundhogs move in, survival of the fittest style.

An unintended consequence of urban decay? Maybe, but this phenomenon further underscores the importance of community in bringing about the change toward sustainable food sources. As properties are restored and maintained, conditions improve for everyone nearby.

The Best Kind of Hunger

Meeting the need for better nutrition can cost precious resources and time. With so much being spent on evaluating need, one element must be kept in mind, since it influences the effectiveness of relief efforts, business development, or philanthropy more than any other: education.

Feeding the hunger for knowledge about nutrition is essential to helping people in struggling neighborhoods improve their food habits.

One small example is the “cookbook” published to help combat the effects of lead poisoning from the Water Crisis. published this document with support by the USDA outlining the benefits of foods with calcium, iron and vitamin C, all with simple to follow recipes featuring fresh ingredients.2

Another is the Flint Farmer’s Market cooking demos. Local chefs and nutritionists demonstrate recipes in an informal test kitchen open to the public on select market days.


Food Trucks!

Mobile food vendors constitute a creative force that is changing how Michiganders eat out. We caught up with a few movers and shakers that are on the road this season, bringing a fresh take to their favorite dishes. We see some trends driving the movement, including small, focused menus, fresh, made-to-order dishes, and specialized ingredients and preparation methods.

West-coast Mexican tamales? True wood-smoke BBQ? Peanut butter on a burger? You aren’t going to find these just anywhere, my friend. Food trucks are seeing the benefits of doing it differently.

We wanted to hear it from the source, so we asked some food truck owners one big question:

What makes your food one-of-a-kind?

The Cheese Trap

Frankenmuth Cheese Haus vendor with signature grilled cheese, fried cheese curds, tomato bisque soup, and potato tots.

CT: “Our sandwiches are one of a kind for two different reasons… we are using bread baked fresh by the Bavarian Inn restaurant, and we use cheese spreads that are handmade from the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus.”

Hero or Villain

Detroit deli sandwiches with local ingredients. Offers vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.

HoV: “Our sandwiches are inspired by comic book characters and we rotate our menu often, so expect to see different options frequently. We use fresh ingredients we make every sandwich to order.”

FP: “What is your favorite right now?”

HoV: “Interestingly enough, it’s a fan creation: the Dark Phoenix. Maple-glazed deli turkey, mozzarella cheese with our house made kale slaw, mayo and oregano on grilled rye. It has become a solid selling mainstay.”

The Rolling Stoves

Detroit burgers, garlic fries, fried pickles, onion rings.
RS: “We cook all of our food to order – nothing is held in warmers…there are not many trucks doing that.”

FP: “What should I order right now?”

RS: “Oh man, it depends if you appreciate a classic done right or you want to be adventurous…”

FP: “Let’s go crazy!”

RS: “Peanut butter burger and garlic fries with a side of ranch for the fries! But, if you want the classic do the smash burger add bacon!”

The Nosh Pit

Detroit vegetarian dishes with locally sourced ingredients. Lentil sloppy joe, hummus and roasted beet bowl, mushroom and banana grilled cheese…!

NP: “We’re a friendly vegetarian truck with truly unique delicious homemade recipes – we make it delicious to eat vegetables! We also source conscientiously to help the environment, we compost, we recycle.”

Tamale Rose

Owosso vendor features tacos, burritos, and tamales with carnitas, chorizo, or shredded pork.

TR: “My Grandmothers recipe. All our food is homemade right down to the chips and salsa; our food is West-coast style.”

FP: “Tell me more about West coast style.”

TR: “It has less spice and lots of fresh flavor. I’m from the West coast, and when I moved here, I found most of the Mexican food in Michigan is Tex-Mex. My grandmother had a love for making great food and she inspired me to make people happy with food.”

Smoke Ring BBQ

Farmington Hills barbecue, Kansas City-style pulled pork, brisket, chicken. Smoke mac ’n’ cheese, “pit” beans.

SR: “I’m one of the few who still uses wood only, no electric smoker here.”

The Philzone

Grand Blanc deli sandwiches, Chicago style. Italian beef, sausages, specialty coneys.

PZ: “I have authentic Chicago Italian beef. I get it from Chicago through a supplier. I also have the Philzone originals: the Mexican coney, and the hot dog Italiano. Plus who don’t like being served by a fat Italian?”

Wildroot Coffee at Woodside Church

Flint pour-over coffee bar, rotating list of single-origin current crop coffees.

“The slow food / tasting experience of our pour-over coffee features a large list of the best coffees we can source. It’s also the unique ‘sacred irreverence’ in the space – a casual coffee bar in a church.”

The Myth, The Legend: The Hot Dog

Antedating the sausage, fast facts to impress your friends, and a national frankfurter index, all for your handy reference. Friend, we got you covered, like mustard.

The OG Paleo Diet

Beer and a dog. The American Way.

How important is the sausage to humanity? It’s mentioned in one of the oldest writings known to man. Homer vividly describes the impatience of a man grilling one over a fire in The Odyssey. Some historians place the use of natural casings (read: intestines) to Emperor Nero’s cook, Gaius in the first century A.D., discovering their suitability upon pricking a roasted pig with a knife.

The modern hot dog traces its roots to Vienna (hence, weiner) and Frankfurt (hence, frankfurter). Those crafty folks also gave us hamburgers – guess where they came from?

A wave of German immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1800s, and sausages came with them. The very first to make its way onto a bun was likely the “dachshund sausage” sold by a German immigrant from a cart in New York in the 1860s. Nothing new under the sun, people. Except maybe the selling practices. (Read on.)

Feltman's Epicure Parade

By 1870, a German immigrant by the name of Charles Feltman opened the first hot dog stand on Coney Island, and by 1880, St. Louis had picked up on the idea. 1893 saw the world converge on the city of Chicago, and two Austrian immigrants put the hot dog in front of tens of thousands of starry-eyed fairgoers. Some cite Chris Von de Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns and a local bar as the man to first pair hot dogs with his beer; others claim it was Harry Stevens, a concessionaire at the New York Giants baseball stadium, who actually popularized the ‘red hots’ at sporting games.

In 1916, Nathan Handwerker – a Polish immigrant and employee of Feltman’s at Coney Island – opened a hot dog stand of his own, selling them for half the price of his competitor; Feltman was eventually forced to close up shop. Nathan’s Famous hot dogs would become a favorite across the country.

The Queen is still skeptical about hot dogs.

The hot dog would even make its way onto a White House menu in 1939, when King George VI of England and Queen Elizabeth made the first British royal visit to the US, ever. Now, this was over a pretty serious matter: Nazi aggression in Europe. The faire? Franklin Delano Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor hosted a picnic, where they decided to serve food that would champion the American way: hot dogs. They held a picnic with the gardeners and groundskeepers. The reviews were mixed. When presented with a silver tray with the hot dogs, the Queen simply asked, ‘How do you eat this?’. Apparently, FDR’s mother was not pleased with her son’s antics, but the king was – he asked for another dog, and even threw back a brew along with it.

In the same year, Los Angeles finally put the West Coast on the map, with Paul and Betty Pink’s first location.

A Nation Speaks

Presidential nosh of hot dogs.

Some stats from a national survey conducted by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council:

7 Billion
Hot dogs eaten in America from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
21.4 Million
Sold at major league parks in a season. That would stretch from Dodger Stadium to Wrigley Field.
Hot dogs sold by a single vendor per game.
Fans who cannot live without hot dogs at the ballpark.

Hot dog fan.

Have or will eat a hot dog at a sporting event this year.
Sporting location for a hot dog? Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Yankee Stadium in New York. It was a tie. Rogers Centre in Toronto? The only baseball stadium to receive 0 votes. America, Eff Yeah!
Votes for Babe Ruth to win a hot dog-eating contest among current and former baseball players. John Kruk was second (17%) and Tommy LaSorda was third (15%). Prince Fielder got 8%, despite self-identifying as vegetarian.
Rate Mohammad Mastafa pays for his hot dog cart location near New York’s Central Park Zoo. This isn’t the only ridiculous financial stat we’ve heard about hot dogs in New York, though. Keep reading.

Temple of the Dog

Poster by Vienna Beef of Gargantuan Chicago Dog on Navy Pier, AKA: Ferris Wheel riders' worst nightmare

There may be no place to get a hot dog quite like Chicago, and no people who more jealously guard their hot dog tradition than Chicagoans. With good reason: here are just a few indicators of Chicago’s gustatorial preeminence within the genre.

#1: The Babe.

Hail Babe Ruth, king of the hot dog eaters.

Babe Ruth, card-carrying frankfurter fiend, purportedly loved road games in Chicago best of all. It’s possible that his pre-game hot dog ritual was brought to its zenith in the bowels of Old Comiskey Park, where the Babe was rumored to routinely eat 12 – yes 12 – hot dogs while his teammates were suiting up. Of course, this led to some problems in 1925.

#2: Straight off the Boat. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair mentioned above was an original site for the arrival of the Vienna Sausage, via Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany. They must have been popular – the pair sold enough hot dogs during the World’s Fair that they opened a storefront by Halsted and Roosevelt. They even got Buffalo Bill Cody hooked.

#3: Rules is Rules.

Giant hot-dog self-applying ketchup.

Ketchup? Really?

Chicago native Ira Helfer owns a Vienna Beef hot dog stand in Honolulu that was visited by then-President Bill Clinton and several of his Secret Service agents. When one of his Secret Service agents asked for the verboten condiment ketchup, Ira took away his hot dog.

Weird? Only if you haven’t tried it.

In the green hills of Seattle, Washington, you can get a hot dog with cream cheese, grilled onions and Sriracha hot sauce. Unconventional? Yes. But while some say Seattle slew the pooch, you can find a variation on the theme right in Flint: Tim Bishop of the Flint Farmers Market knows the recipe when asked, and offers a cream cheese-bacon-jalepeño dog – if you ask nicely. Many Seattle folks also eat vegan hot dogs, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Is Nothing Sacred?

Crook: Ahmed Mohammed was caught on camera selling hot dogs for $30 to tourists in New York City outside the 9/11 Memorial

Remember the vendor outside Central Park Zoo? Well, this other guy seems to have beaten the system. For a while. Ahmed Mohammed had been ripping off tourists, charging up to $30 for a dirty-water dog from his cart outside the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan. While the memorial is arguably the nation’s largest tourist trap, (besides Branson, Missouri, that is) this was straight illegal. Vendors are required by law to post a sign with their prices, as a vendor just around the corner from Ahmed was doing – and selling comparable hot dogs for $1. As you can imagine, there were fights breaking out over the prices, which drew attention from local authorities. At first, when a news reporter tried to speak with him on camera, he suddenly declared he spoke no English and tried to sell them a hot dog for $3.

Ahmed’s luck seems to have run out, though, the day that he tried to gouge a local named Ben, from New Jersey. The customer had already taken a bite when he heard the price, and simply set the partially eaten dog on the cart and walked away. The disgruntled and still hungry New Yorker then proceeded to tell news sources about the scam. They finally caught the shyster on video, and he has since been fired. Good times. Good times.

Unity in Diversity

Just visiting? Here’s a breakdown of what to expect when looking for the familiar in strange places:

Northeast / East

New York hot dog

New Yorkers eat more hot dogs than any other group in the country…and they usually come with steamed onions and pale deli mustard.

New Jersey sports several styles, but how about that “Italian Dog”? It’s served in thick pizza bread topped with onions, peppers and deep fried potatoes.

In Boston, dogs are boiled and grilled, served in a New England style bun with mustard and relish, and, you guessed it, sometimes with Boston baked beans.

Philadelphia loves its Philly Cheesesteak, but how about an all-beef hot dog and a fish cake inside the bun? Topped with a sweet vinegary slaw and spicy mustard. This has got to be the weirdest on the list…

Washington, D.C. is the home of the half-smoke: a half pork, half beef sausage (like a hot dog but with more coarsely ground meat and extra spice) usually topped with chili, mustard and onions.

In West Virginia, expect chili, mustard and coleslaw covering the dog on a steamed bun.


Chicago Dog. 'Nuff said.

Chicago Dogs are “dragged through the garden”: layered with yellow mustard, dark green relish, chopped raw onion, pickle spear, sport peppers, tomato slices (and occasionally cucumber slices), topped with a dash of celery salt and served in a poppy seed bun. Many locations are serious about serving only Vienna Beef dogs, and Gold Coast makes quarter-cuts in the ends and chars them for an additional smoky grilled flavor.

Kansas City: sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, sesame seed bun.

Michigan Coney: The pride and joy of Flint and hotly contested with Detroit, there is plenty of competition over the perfect combination of meaty chili sauce, mustard and onion.

Cleveland boasts the Polish Boy: usually a kielbasa, but can be a hot dog, too. Fench fries, southern style barbecue or hot sauce, and coleslaw somehow made their way into the bun. Unwieldy, but filling.

Cincinnati Coneys are definitely going to have that famous chili, and more grated Cheddar cheese than you can shake a stick at.

Way Down South

Texas Chili Dog

Atlanta, etc: Topped with coleslaw and Vidalia onion.

Texas is home to the chili cheese dog with jalepeños. Classic.


Seattle hot dog, complete with cream cheese.

The Sonoran Dog is grilled, bacon-wrapped, and buried in a sturdy bun beneath pinto beans, grilled onions and green peppers, chopped fresh tomatoes, relish, tomatillo jalapeno salsa, mayonnaise, mustard and shredded cheese. Holy cow.

Californians enjoy a variety of options, but in L.A. and San Francisco, you’ll find bacon wrapped dogs with grilled onions and peppers. You’ll dig it the most.

Seattle’s cream cheese, grilled onion, and Sriracha masterpiece deserves another mention. The dog is also split lengthwise and grilled and the bun is toasted, like it should be.

In Alaska, Reindeer hot dogs, actually made from caribou, are served in a steamed bun with grilled onions that are sautéed in (gasp!) Coca-Cola.

Rules is Still Rules

If you are going to indulge, it doesn’t take a lot of fuss to enjoy our national food. But, please, follow a few guidelines. You don’t want to embarrass yourself, especially while eating food of certain shapes.

Use buns with weirdness like sun-dried tomato and basil. I mean, c’mon.
Use cloth napkins, fine china, or utensils. The bun is there for a reason.
Leave bits of bun on the plate. You built it like that, it’s your responsibility.
Over-do the presentation. It’s not going to last that long.
Even consider ketchup if you’re 18+ years old. Grow up.
Drink wine with hot dogs. It’s probably illegal in Austria.

Try the host of options that are available to you. Mustard and relish, again? You can do better.
Grill the inside of the bun. You’ll thank yourself.
Dress the dog, not the bun. Condiments go on top. You yourself may have witnessed the stimulating picnic tableaux vivant of the screaming three year old holding an empty, slippery, ketchup-soaked bun while the puppy chomps the dog lying in the dust.

Selected Sources: