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 feedingamerica.org, 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 upliftsolutions.org 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 northflintcorp.com. 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
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
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.
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. Flintwaterstudy.org 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.