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Detroit Entrepreneurs Fight Food Insecurity With Lessons Of The Past

Fresh Corner Café sells loose fruits and fresh pre-packaged items like salads, sandwich wraps and fruit cups to corner stores, grocery stores and gas stations. [Courtesy of Valaurian Waller]
Fresh Corner Café sells loose fruits and fresh pre-packaged items like salads, sandwich wraps and fruit cups to corner stores, grocery stores and gas stations.

On a cold, sunny day in early February, Raphael Wright and his business partner, Sonya Greene, check out a vacant building in Detroit's Linwood neighborhood. Inside, wood panels are on the floor, and drywall is being placed over exposed brick. The only clue to the building's past is a sign out front, with the words "Liquor, Beepers, and Check Cashing."

Located on the west side of Detroit, the Linwood neighborhood remains underdeveloped, with few retail businesses, countless empty lots and many vacant buildings. But Wright and Greene see potential here. It's why they've chosen this neighborhood to open a bodega that sells healthy food. Like other neglected neighborhoods in urban areas, fresh fruits and vegetables aren't a basic necessity here — they're a luxury.

Wright says it's been that way since he was a kid.

"I was raised in the '90s, and I always say that we were junk food babies," he explains. "So we only ate our full courses out of liquor stores, gas stations, and many times fast food restaurants were pretty much our go-to places to eat."

Wright learned at a young age the cost of a diet based on convenient, processed foods.

"I'm a victim of food insecurity," he says. "I'm 30 years old. I was diagnosed with diabetes at 19, so before I was old enough to have a drink, I was diabetic."

Wright wants the bodega, tentatively named the Glendale Mini Mart, to be a pilot for a full-range grocery store he hopes to open in the future. The bodega will offer fresh produce, prepared foods and staple items. He says he hopes it will be part of a larger mixed-use development that will include a barber shop, a beauty salon and housing.

"This is my opportunity to not only service a community, but to show proof of this new, fresh concept of how to introduce healthier food access in our communities," Wright says.

Wright and Greene are not the first to recognize the importance of Detroit's African American residents having access to fresh, reasonably priced food. That awareness began more than 50 years ago, following the rebellion that rocked the city.

In late July 1967, one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in this country's history took place in the Virginia Park neighborhood of Detroit. What started as a confrontation between black residents and the Detroit Police Department lasted five days and resulted in the deaths of 43 people. More than 2,000 buildings were looted, burned or destroyed.

The riots were the culmination of high levels of frustration, resentment and anger among African Americans due to unemployment, poverty, racial segregation, police brutality and lack of economic and education opportunities. However, there was something else not often discussed — food.

According to Alex Hill, adjunct professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, there was a "fairly expansive hunger issue in the community" around that time. Hill's research on the '67 Rebellion looks at food, power and race. In many ways, it's the continuation of work that began when the non-profit group Focus: Hope began studying conditions in Detroit's black neighborhoods in the '60s as a response to the riots.

Focus: HOPE educated the clergy and the white Christian community on racism, poverty and other forms of injustice. In 1968, the organization released a Consumer Survey on Food and Drugs. The survey sought to answer three questions: Do the poor pay more for food? Does skin color affect in-store service? Are food facilities and products equal for inner city and suburban shoppers?

To get answers, nearly 400 suburban white women and inner-city black women were trained as undercover shoppers and sent to 300 grocery stores in the Detroit metro area. The main findings were that poor inner-city Detroiters were paying up to 20% more for lower-quality groceries. The survey also found that the quality of service, store condition, produce and meats in the city's chain and independent stores were not of average quality compared to upper- income and suburban stores.

The conclusion of the survey provided a few recommendations, some of which included a massive consumer education program targeting the poor and poor African Americans; negotiations with major chains to build new stores in certain impoverished areas; renovations of existing stores and equipment; and hiring African American personnel, particularly managers.

It is unknown if there was any response to the survey.

Hill says today, the choices available to black and white shoppers are still unequal. "In thinking about those disparities and access, those are still very much real. They may look different, but I'd say they're very much the same from 1967," he says.

Hill explains that Detroiters travel outside of the city on weekends to larger chain grocers to stock up and use their local grocer for smaller needs, such as eggs or milk, during the week.

"We often don't think about the cost of time for Detroit residents to reach these locations," he says. "Transportation is a kind of regular conversation that's had in the city that makes it very difficult to access food of different types."

In Detroit, most grocery stores in the city are independently owned. According to the 2018 Detroit Food Metric Report, there are 71 full-scale grocery stores in the city, but only two types of chain stores — Whole Foods and Meijer. In a city that is 142 square miles and still predominantly African American, none of the grocery stores is black-owned.

The Fight Against Food Insecurity

Valaurian Waller is the co-owner of Fresh Corner Café, which sells pre-packaged items such as salads, sandwich wraps and fruit cups to corner stores, grocery stores and gas stations.

"People like to call Detroit a food desert and it's not," she says. "It's somewhat of a misnomer. There's food in Detroit, it's just kind of hard to get to."

One of Waller's partners is Peaches and Greens, a produce market in Detroit's New Center neighborhood. The store sells pantry items, dry goods, snacks, and other locally made food products. Fresh Corner works directly with stores like Peaches and Greens. It also works with schools, the YMCA and senior housing developments.

"Fresh Corner had this idea to kind of cut out the middleman and bring fresh food options to places people already go and have easy access to anyways," Waller says. "If you're going down to your corner store to shop for a few food things, it makes sense to come to you."

Waller grew up on the east side of Detroit, but went to middle school and high school in Grosse Pointe, an affluent suburb northeast of Detroit with a history of discriminatory real estate practices. While in school, Waller noticed the jarring differences in food access between the two areas.

"The difference between a Kroger in Detroit and the Kroger in Grosse Pointe is laughable," she says. "Just seeing the juxtaposition of those two worlds and those experiences really inspired me to be like, there has to be a solution to this. There has to be awareness of the inequality in these issues."

Back at the site of the future Glendale Mini Mart, Greene walks along the front of the building. She is a registered nurse who grew up in Linwood. The property has been in her family for at least 40 years, and she bought the building from her family to start the store. Greene says there's always been a need in Linwood for healthy food.

"It has to start with the education component," she says. "That's pretty much what this is about. It's teaching with love and understanding and saying, 'Yeah, we know that you've not had an option but we're here to give you something else to choose from.'"

Wright says the bodega is also about representation.

"We've seen our grocery stores not be representative of our communities," he says. "So putting faces in the community that looked like us, that are from our neighborhoods and understand what we're going through, it makes the education part easier."

This story comes to us from member station WDET in Detroit. You can hear the audio here . Brittany Hutson is a writer and freelance journalist and was a WDET Feet In 2 Worlds Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @fedandbougie

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