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Feeding “The D”

In this city that has been widely characterized as a “food desert” you will find a remarkable phenomenon: the Eastern Market. Covering 43 acres with five “sheds” where over 150 merchants and farmers sell their wares, the Eastern Market is the largest historic public market in the U.S. 

The Eastern Market, above, is a balm for many in Detroit, where food insecurity is a fact of life. A dearth of large grocery stores in the city means many residents must rely on convenience stores for necessities.

On a typical Saturday, especially during the summer months, 45,000 people come through, buying everything from farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to bedding plants to homemade preserves to fresh fish and seafood.

In 1891, the Detroit farmers market moved from its downtown location at Cadillac Square to where it is now—East Central Detroit between Mack and Gratiot avenues. While it has consistently been an important hub for the wholesale food industry during its 125-year history, its popularity as a retail outlet waxed and waned over the course of the 20th century. But the resurgence of public interest in local foods coupled with the scarcity of big-box grocery stores in Metro Detroit has led to boom times for the Eastern Market.

It is a food oasis in the midst of the desert, with offerings that are no doubt fresher, healthier, more varied, and probably cheaper than Detroiters find at either of the two chain stores—Whole Foods Market and Meijer—which the city managed to attract with big tax incentives in 2013. That doesn’t mean, however, that food security is not an issue for many Detroiters.

The main problem is transportation.

Detroit is a sprawling city—more than 140 square miles—without a viable public transportation system. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that in 2012, 26 percent of Detroit households did not have a car. For car-less Detroiters living in the farther-flung neighborhoods, the Eastern Market, or Whole Foods or Meijer, for that matter, might as well be on the moon.

A dearth of large grocery stores in the city means many residents must rely on convenience stores for necessities.Photo: Corine Vermueulen

There are numerous initiatives, private and public, that aim to address Detroit’s food security issues—government nutrition programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the Kellogg Foundation’s Double Up Food Bucks program, small neighborhood grocery stores, farm stands and farmers markets, fresh produce trucks, and an estimated 1,400 community gardens. The Eastern Market Corporation (the nonprofit that has managed the market since 2006) also operates over 20 mobile pop-up farm stands from June through September all around the metropolitan area and deploys a corps of food-and-health fellows to run its food-justice initiatives.

Detroit’s food system is extraordinarily complex and riddled with infrastructure problems. But like virtually every other facet of this paradoxical city, the food system also has revolutionary potential. According to a study by Michigan State University, Detroit’s 20 square miles of vacant land have the capacity to fulfill most of the produce needs of Detroit’s population. On as few as 568 acres—less than one square mile—76 percent of Detroiters’ vegetables and 42 percent of their fruit could be produced using high-productivity biointensive farming strategies. View PDF of the study.

The problems that will need to be solved to pave the way for such an outcome are daunting. The urban agriculture movement in Detroit is and arguably should remain in the hands of nonprofits, but it will struggle to scale unless the city government fully supports it by creating the legal and policy infrastructure to allow it to develop and expand. That includes a more equitable and efficient process for the disposition of vacant land, policies governing the soil remediation of former industrial sites, and investments in produce-storage facilities and hoop houses to extend the growing season.

Whether or not Detroit ever succeeds in becoming 76 percent self-sufficient, the urban agriculture movement is unquestionably thriving here. According to the Detroit Food Policy Council, “Detroit has more community gardens per square mile than any other city in the United States,” producing over three tons of fresh produce annually in addition to educational and community-building programs, job training programs for unemployed Detroiters and veterans, and entrepreneurial opportunities. And that’s not small potatoes.