It might seem as if all the news coming out of Detroit lately has been bad . . . blighted and abandoned neighborhoods, the first major American city to declare bankruptcy, crippling unemployment. In 1950,
Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the United States with 1.8 million residents. Its population has been in decline ever since. The 2008-09 economic crash caused Detroit’s unemployment rate to peak at 28 percent, and Detroit’s population plummeted to under 725,000 with two hundred thousand residents leaving the Motor City during the crisis.
You might have heard that Detroit is a “food desert,” meaning that there are no grocery stores selling fresh produce within the city limits. That’s not true. There are a number of loyal grocers within the city limits – the Honey Bee Market, established in 1956, caters to a mostly Latino clientele in southwest Detroit, and University Foods, established in 1979, serves the upper Midtown area. The Eastern Market, located about a mile from Ford Field stadium, is the largest public historic market district in the United States. Especially on Saturdays, thousands of Detroit area residents flock to buy the fresh produce it offers. It also serves as a tailgate destination before Detroit Lions home games in the fall. There are other local grocers and discounters like Save-A-Lot (the precursor to Dollar General as a grocer); but when the Farmer Jack grocery chain closed its single remaining store in 2007, that meant major grocery chains no longer had operations in Detroit. No Albertsons, Kroger, or Safeway stores within Motown’s city limits – not even Walmart, the largest grocer in the United States.
Austin-based Whole Foods, surprisingly, decided to enter Detroit’s city limits, setting up shop on Mack Avenue in lower Midtown in June 2013. Whole Foods sells high quality, organic, and sustainable foods to customers nationwide via employees who are treated well – starting wages are usually around $11/hour, with benefits offered after four to six months on the job. Whole Foods strives to practice environmental stewardship through its relationships with suppliers, and touts commitment to “greater good” as a core value in its aggregate operations. Whole Foods is also one of the most expensive grocery stores in the country.
The ELCA Youth Gathering brought 30,000 Lutheran high schoolers to Detroit in July 2015. I came to the gathering with eight youth and a wonderful adult leader, Chelsi West, representing St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin. The gathering youth and their leaders performed service projects throughout the city, and filled the Ford Field stadium four nights for music, fellowship, and inspiration from superb speakers. It was a fantastic event, and many Detroiters expressed gratitude for our presence that brought service muscle and economic support to the city and surrounding area.
While in Detroit for the event, our group went for a visit to the Whole Foods store in Detroit’s Midtown. Being from Austin, I wanted to see what “greater good” connections the seemingly incongruous placement of a Whole Foods store in the Motor City were producing. We hoofed up from Ford Field about one mile to lower Midtown on a hot Saturday afternoon. New apartment buildings contrasted with burnt-out and abandoned mansions from days gone by. My Austinite youth, accustomed to a busy downtown corridor, were surprised by the tranquility. We saw few passersby and only a modest amount of cars on the roads.
When we got to Mack Avenue in lower Midtown, we noticed more activity. The Whole Foods Market stood on the corner. At 20,000 square feet, it’s one-fourth the size of Austin’s flagship store. Yet, it’s one of the biggest grocery stores within the Detroit city limits.
Some of the grocery stores in Detroit (such as Save-A-Lot) move big quantities of cheap food with meager selection – highly processed filler and junk food like chips, crackers, and sugary treats. It’s only been in the last few decades that a major shift has occurred in world history – generally speaking, the poor are now obese and the rich are thin. For all of history, it’s been the other way around. Cheap filler food – seemingly the best option for people living in poverty – is a main contributing factor. Detroit has one of the highest obesity rates for American cities (33 percent). Whole Foods has sent one of its staff nutritionists, Dr. Akua Woolbright, to live and work in Detroit; she offers free classes on healthier eating and lifestyle change.
Store manager Larry Austin (pictured above) met with our group and talked to us of the store’s two years of operations in Detroit. Larry exudes an exemplary enthusiasm for his work and for the mission of Whole Foods in Detroit. He’s been with Whole Foods for sixteen years. The five high schoolers who joined me in conversation with Larry caught a small glimpse of Whole Foods co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb’s 21st century business model. Larry told us, with a confident smile, that sales for these first two years have exceeded expectations significantly.
The Detroit store employs 180 people, half of whom actually live within city limits; the majority of these are full-time employees receiving health care benefits.
My book Just a Little Bit More proposes a newer concept – economic democracy – that uplifts the values of limits, balance, and cooperation within the competitive business environment. JaLBM promotes purposeful common good creation; it’s our responsibility to make sure the economic market lives up to that goal. Mackey and Robb concur and it’s a major reason why they put the first chain grocer back into Detroit since 2007. Granted, Whole Foods took advantage of city-offered subsidies that minimized the store rental rate ($6/square foot), but Kroger, Albertsons and Walmart haven’t done so and don’t have plans to set up shop anytime soon within Detroit’s city limits.
As for the prices in the Detroit store – overall, they seemed expensive. I expected to see more difference in terms of prices between Whole Foods in Austin and Detroit (the hot food and salad bar is available at $6.99/lb. instead of the usual $8.99/lb.). But as Mackey, Robb, and store manager Larry Austin will tell you, the store offers a significantly healthier quality of food not available anywhere else in Detroit. And also, if you’re making your own food – and not buying prepared food – you’re saving money. According to Slate writer Tracie McMillan, (her linked article is excellent), Whole Foods Detroit has a mountain of work to do if they expect Detroit’s poorer residents to shop there. McMillan says 38 percent of Detroit residents receive SNAP benefits – food stamps – but only 5-10 percent of sales at Whole Foods Detroit as of now are from residents using SNAP benefits. (Nationally, Whole Foods’ rate of SNAP benefit users is 1-2 percent of overall sales.)
Detroit has over 400 liquor stores, grossly outnumbering the city’s grocery stores. Whole Foods in Detroit is not a perfect match, but I give the corporation major props for choosing the city of Detroit for a much needed shot of fresh produce, healthier food options, and jobs.
The news from Detroit is getting better – unemployment is currently down to 10. 2 percent and further economic recovery seems to be just around the corner. Most importantly, all the Detroiters with whom we interacted – from Larry Austin to folks on the street – were upbeat about their city.
Thanks to the many Detroiters who helped make the ELCA Youth Gathering memorable and uplifting!
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!