Food desert? Blogger aims to photograph 115 Detroit grocery stores, one bike ride at a time

Photo courtesy The People of Detroit/Noah Stephens
Photo courtesy The People of Detroit/Noah Stephens

I read the blog The People of Detroit for the first time soon after the Chris Hansen Dateline NBC April 2010 episode called America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope, which negatively portrayed the city. What struck me about People of Detroit immediately was its tagline, “Because not all people in Detroit eat raccoons,” a clear swipe at the show.

What started as a blog about the regular people you meet in the city has morphed a bit, now focusing on the alleged food desert in Detroit. The man behind The People of Detroit, Noah Stephens, has made it a goal to go to all 115 full-service grocery stores within the city limits on his bike, photographing the condition of the fresh produce at each stop.

The idea of Detroit’s food desert has its roots in a study done six years ago, and it has caused consternation on all sides of the debate about access to healthy food. Among the issues people cite for the food desert argument are a lack of stores selling healthy food, the inability of people who lack cars to get to the stores that do sell it, the high cost of eating healthy, and a lack of knowledge by Detroiters about how to prepare healthy food.

Stephens, a lifelong Detroiter, says personal experience teaches him that those issues are, at best, overplayed.

“I always hear people say, ‘People just don’t know what healthy food is,’ and I find that absurd to the point of being condescending and insulting to people in these communities,” he says.

Still, he realizes people need to have that concern addressed, so one of the questions he asks everyone he interviews for this project is, how do you define healthy food? He notes people always say fruits and vegetables, but many start talking about lean proteins and whole grains. The next question is about access to healthy food, and he says most people respond that they don’t have any difficulty.

Getting answers like this is part of what Stephens hopes to accomplish. Among his goals for this phase of The People of Detroit:

  • Promote physical activity and sustainable transportation by biking the city’s 143 square miles.
  • Promote healthy dietary choices by showing where healthy food is available.
  • Call attention to stores stocked with rotten produce and prod those stores into providing better options for their customers.
  • Create an unprecedentedly comprehensive visual survey of food availability in an economically distressed, post-industrial American city.

His approach to this is systematic. You will always see prices for what he considers the fruit staples — apples, bananas, and oranges — and photos so you can examine the quality. He always includes an economic profile of the community from the U.S. Census Bureau to prove he’s not focusing solely on the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. And each post is written in Stephen’s frank and relatable way of storytelling.

He’s also riding to each store on his bike from his home on city’s east side, in part, to shed light on the issue of transportation to and from grocery stores in the city. Part of how the USDA defines a food desert is an area where people live more than one mile from a grocery store.

Stephens points out that only 10 percent of Detroit residents live more than one mile from a grocery store. That is an easier point to highlight from the seat of a bike.

“If that (transportation) really is an issue for someone, I want people to think of bikes as a low-cost alternative way to get groceries,” he says. “I’m really trying to provide solutions for people that may not have a lot of choices. I want to encourage people and model choices that will lead to a healthier lifestyle.

The media is starting to take note. He was recently featured on WDIV’s show First Block and was on a panel on Al Jazeera America.

While the attention is nice, Stephens is looking for additional funding because he is providing a counterpoint to a popular Detroit narrative. And changing the debate is a challenge he enjoys.

When it comes to the high cost of eating healthy, he has a lot of personal experience with that question. For Stephens, the real cost isn’t measured in dollars and cents, it’s measured in time.

“The only difference between healthy food and unhealthy food is convenience. Prepackaged or fast food is more convenient. You can make a big pot of beans and rice or lentils that will feed you longer than a Big Mac would, but you have to invest more time into it. Not necessarily a lot of time, but it does take some investment of time,” he points out.

Getting back to the assertion that even if people in Detroit had access to fresh, good quality food, they wouldn’t know how to prepare it, Stephens addresses it this way:

“A woman I interviewed, she was in there (Atlas Market) with her son. She was talking about how she takes an active role in educating her son about what it means to eat healthy food. For someone to say it’s impossible to rear a child who is interested in eating healthy food because you’re in certain communities, this woman is a perfect counterexample to that,” he says.

“I asked her, ‘I often hear people say that people in urban communities don’t know what healthy food is.’ I think her answer was brilliant. She said that she thinks it’s not that they don’t know what healthy food is, it’s that they don’t know they need to make eating healthy a habit everyday, like brushing your teeth.”



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