Where are Michigan’s food deserts in 2020, and what should you know if you live in one?
TECUMSEH, Mich.—Corinna Jo moved from Belleville to Tecumseh looking for a quieter community with good schools for her family. She didn’t expect to be moving into a food desert.
Her neighborhood presently has one grocer, Busch’s. It’s a locally-sourced grocer akin to a regional Whole Foods, Jo explained, and the prices run fairly high.
“I used to be five minutes from Walmart, Meijer, and Kroger and I definitely miss Kroger more than any of them,” she told The ‘Gander. “Like our diapers, for example: At Busch’s, for a small pack, it’s $11 and at Walmart it’s $8. I only get them from Busch’s when I absolutely have to. Even canned items, frozen vegetables, and fresh fruit, there is a huge difference in price at the cash register.”
Where she used to be able to just go to the store as needed, Jo now plans out her shopping trips well in advance and makes the 20-minute drive to the nearest big box retailer once a week, every other week if she can manage it.
“I only go to Busch’s when I actually need something quickly and don’t mind paying the price difference,” she said.
In nearby Morenci, the situation is almost the perfect mirror. The only grocer Barbara Bovee-Sutherland can go to in her hometown is a Dollar General. Where Jo has to drive to nearby Adrian for affordability, Bovee-Sutherland has to go to the same store for healthy options.
“Dollar General has a limited choice of food,” Bovee-Sutherland told The ‘Gander. “No fresh produce. Mostly junk food. But for some people in Morenci it’s the only option.”
Both Tecumseh and Morenci are “food deserts.” Often describing urban areas with no access to affordable food, the problem posed by these deserts is faced statewide. In neighborhoods from Detroit to Bessemer, the access to food can be a concern for Michiganders. Some places rely on expensive grocers like Tecumseh, while others have to rely on dollar stores or convenience stores like Morenci.
Many people living in food deserts heavily lean on access to fast-food franchises.
“Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Tecumseh and Morenci, in addition to seeking food assistance where needed, there are food desert survival tips from the Baylor College of Medicine.
- Plan trips to more distant grocers well in advance, arranging lists and transportation if needed.
- Buy food with a long shelf life, particularly dry or frozen goods.
- Be sure to make plenty of room to store bulk food.
- Look for community gardens, farmers markets, or co-ops in your area.
- If you commute, also look for gardens, markets, or grocers near work.
- Watch added salt and sugar content, as long-lasting foods tend to be high in these.
Longer term, though, solutions are needed. And for solutions, the government needs a detailed understanding of where and why food deserts exist. That’s one reason food deserts aren’t defined on a city level, but on a neighborhood level. While residents in both Tecumseh and Morenci travel to Adrian to get groceries, large swaths of the town lack neighborhood grocers.
That granular view of food deserts is useful, because it lets groups like the Michigan’s Food Security Council see patterns like the relationship between food deserts and socioeconomic status. Poorer communities tend to have less access to fresh groceries while seeing higher exposure to fast-food chains. This correlation, Spoon explains, is likely a major contributing factor to the American obesity problem, which can have long-term health effects.
While not all of the 600,000 food insecure Michiganders live in food deserts, elimination of those deserts could go a long way to countering food insecurity. Food deserts can also take a family like Jo’s, which was remarkably food-secure in Belleville, and make them food insecure in Tecumseh, priced out of access to an affordable neighborhood grocer. That also means what is a food desert to one person might not be to someone with a higher income.
So as part of their mandate to identify causes of and solutions to the problem of food insecurity in Michigan, the Food Security Council will need to tackle food deserts head-on. Announced earlier this year, the council’s goal is to find policy proposals that could help Michiganders feed their families within their means.
“No one should have to worry about how they are going to put food on the table the next day,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing the council in August. “Food insecurity is a very real and prevalent issue for many Michiganders, and COVID-19 has only made the problem worse. That is why, today, I am creating the Food Security Council to bring together leaders from both sides of the aisle to find solutions on behalf of Michigan families. I am committed to making sure every family and person has access to the quality, nutritious food they need.”