To illustrate the jigsaw puzzle that explains health and food disparities in low-income communities, comparisons between two low-income communities, Flint and Detroit, reveal a lack of grocery stores with affordable prices and the abundance of fast-food restaurant are key challenges linked to adverse health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
“It basically confirmed that there’s a lot of junk food on kids’ menus in poorer neighborhoods of urban areas,” said Rick Sadler, assistant professor in MSU’s College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health — Flint campus, who co-authored in 2018 a study on how students who attend schools in urban areas with high levels of socioeconomic distress consume foods with low levels of nutritional value such as fast-food.
Fast-food frequency in Detroit
“The number of fast food restaurants are too many to count, but I would say more than 10,” said Detroit resident Darion Jackson. “It’s harder to find healthier options when all you’re surrounded with is fast food.”
Kenneth Matthews, a Detroit resident, agrees with Jackson on the increasing number of fast food restaurant in the city.
Sadler credits systemic racism as the root cause for food disparities.
“A lot of people who were racist were scared into believing these racist lies that their home values would go down and the crime rates would go up in the 1960s,” Sadler said.
“That made tens of thousands of people leave the inner cities and go into the suburbs,” he said. “This process drove white flight, which made grocery stores leave the inner cities where there are higher concentrations of African Americans. Urban planners in cities like Flint and Detroit are working to find solutions to help improve the disparity in food options so that the health of the community can improve.”
Providing food options is not the only goal of urban planning in low-income communities. These communities face more challenges than just food options.
“Food access is just another piece of that puzzle,” Sadler said. “If you live in a community where you don’t want to go outside because you’re concerned that there’s gonna be trouble or because there’s a bunch of vacant houses and it’s just not pleasant to walk around so we are finding solutions to reverse the effects of years of systemic racism.”
Lack of grocery stores, one puzzle piece
Low-income residents in Flint and Detroit are among the over 23 million people don’t have access to a supermarket within a mile of their home according to The Grocery Gap research conducted in 2010 by Policy Link and The Food Thrust, funded by the U.S Department of Agriculture.
“There’s definitely disparities in access to grocery stores for people in low-income communities because people who live in those communities tend to have lower mobility,” Sadler said, pointing to other pieces of the puzzle — lack of transportation and physical abilities due to chronic disease — that explains the lack of access to grocery stories.
“So more people in those communities wouldn’t have access to a car or their car wouldn’t run great,” he said. “They may also have higher rates of chronic disease, limiting their physical mobility and hindering their ability to navigate through a grocery store.”
Grocery store prices and cleanliness deters shoppers
From mop and buckets taking over the aisles to shopping carts littering the parking lot of local grocery stores, Detroit residents said these are a couple of reasons that keep them from shopping at these stores.
“The cleanliness of the grocery stores in the inner city aren’t up to par,” said Detroit resident Hunter Phelps. “Yes, the grocery store may be convenient, but the representation of the store makes it very hard to shop there.”
Inner-city grocery store prices high for lower quality food
“Flint is like a lot of other places in this respect where it’s kind of multiple things,” Sadler said.
“We know that the stores that are left in poor communities, the food tends to be lower quality and more expensive for the same type of food and fewer and far between,” Sadler said. “The problem is that populations rely on their neighborhood grocery stores. Lower quality food leads to the population being more vulnerable to the effects of a poor diet.”
Suburban grocery stores
Inner-city neighborhoods, in comparison to suburban middle-class neighborhoods, paint a completely different picture of nutrition.
Walmarts, Krogers, Aldis and Meijers are common in heavily populated suburbs of Michigan.
“I see mostly chain grocery stores in my area, like Meijer and Kroger and Whole Foods,” said Caroline Berman, a Meridian Township resident. “I honestly can’t think of any small mom and pop sized grocery stores in my area.”
A Meijer located on Lake Lansing Road in East Lansing. Photo credit: Brea Crawford
The Meridian Township/Haslett area is home to three Meijer grocery stores. Each of the stores share a uniform profile with its product placement. Customers such as Berman feel the stores are up to standards when it comes to cleanliness and quality.
The prices of milk, bread and chicken breast at Meijer on Lake Lansing Road. Photo credit: Brea Crawford
“The stores are clean and typically pretty well-stocked, aside from the under stocking during the height of COVID-19 quarantine,” said Berman. “They’re bright and organized, in my opinion.”
Aside from the chain grocery stores, farmers markets are starting to gain popularity. In Meridian Township, there are two farmers markets. Both are seasonal pop-up stations that allow local farmers to advertise and sell their produce, but buying local comes with a price.
“I typically shop at grocery stores,” said Berman. “I like farmer’s markets, but with the hiked prices, I don’t go very often and haven’t gone to any that I can remember since moving to Michigan.”
Source: Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER): Cost of living index