In Defense of the Corner Market

Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest.

GOOD Magazine, Dateline, NBC and countless others have weighed in on the apparent market failure that causes grocery stores to shun cities like Detroit and Cleveland like a bad case of head lice.

Detroit sure has a lot of groceries for the country's most notorious food desert. Image: ##http://maps.google.com/maps?oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=grocery+stores+detroit&fb=1&gl=us&hq=grocery+stores&hnear=Detroit,+MI&ei=kxK_TdLOE6Gy0QH7ypmjBQ&sa=X&oi=local_group&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CAQQtgMwAA## Google Maps##

This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this year when it was widely circulated that the city of Detroit — all 140 miles of it — lacked a single grocery store. This was, of course, patently false. A quick Google search shows that there are dozens, even hundreds, of foodsellers populating Detroit’s neighborhoods.

What type of grocer does business in down-and-dirty Detroit? One example is the Honey Bee Market, a family-owned business that has been operating in the city for five decades. It carries a wide selection of Central American ingredients, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables. The store was voted “most fun” by Detroit’s Metro Times.

So how did the Wall Street Journal, Dateline and NBC get it so wrong about Detroit? I argue that it is all about semantics, along with a large dose of cultural relativism.

The argument about food deserts seems to be premised on the assumption that supermarkets — suburban-style, big-box, corporate chain stores with plenty o’ parking — are inherently superior to walkable, family owned food markets that serve low-income populations. The media portrays these corner markets as liquor stores or “discount” stores carrying little fresh produce and lots of Hostess cupcakes.

While there is certainly a class of convenience store that lacks healthy food options, many analyses have completely ignored the presence of small, family-owned food markets and their important role in feeding urban populations.

The USDA — which recently released its “food desert locator” to wide fanfare — admits to using “supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.” Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for USDA said, “We define supermarkets and large grocery stores as food stores with at least $2 million in [annual] sales that contain all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket.”

“We do not address smaller outlets that have fresh food,” she said. But she added that there are some local studies that have examined the issue. Here definitions are important. One of the two studies cited by the USDA [PDF] showed that depending on which definitions are employed, between 17 and 87 percent of New Orleans is a food desert.

To say that food sellers who do more than $2 million in business provide fresh food and those who sell less do not is a rough estimate to say the least. In fact, in my experience, it’s false. According to the locator, I live right on the border of a USDA-defined “food desert.” The thing is, I’ve never had better access to food in my life. The corner market by my house is exactly the type of place the USDA or CNN would ignore. The Deli, as it’s called, is kind of shabby looking from the outside and there’s no way it’s more than 10,000 square feet. But I love it.

The Deli in Cleveland is a small food seller, but it carries all the essentials. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s run by a family. They sell fresh-sliced cold cuts, fresh fruits and veggies. They have everything you’d need on a day-to-day basis, at prices I think are more than fair. I know because it’s helped me many times in a pinch. You can get eggs, potatoes, grapes, cheese (real cheese), sardines and even even pulpo (octopus) in a can. And of course you can also get essentials like band-aids, cheap beer, good beer, baby formula, toilet paper and macaroni and cheese. I have a recipe that calls for Jiffy corn bread mix and sour cream. They have them both.

It’s not the only market within a short walk from my house; there are literally half a dozen. There’s a Vietnamese market that I’ve grown to like for its unusual baked goods, selection of fish and exotic produce including escarole. There is Stockyard Meats, a family-owned butcher and general grocery, where you can order a whole pig for roasting. Right next door is a Save-A-Lot, which is a grocery in every other sense than the USDA/CNN definition. It’s no Whole Foods, but it has produce, meat, canned goods, frozen foods at prices that are appropriate for the neighborhood’s median household income ($25,000 at the last Census).

Just over a mile away is a “traditional” grocery store, by USDA definition, with a fish counter and a dairy aisle. It’s an easy trip by bike. But most of my neighbors, the low-income folks that that these types of studies are generally concerned with, don’t drive and don’t bother making the trek. And why would they? You can get everything you need in a short walk.

What the USDA fails to realize is that if food stores are located very close to your house, they needn’t be as large. You can pop in many times a week and pick up a light enough load to carry. That’s what many of my neighbors and I do. As a result, we don’t need SUVs. We don’t need acres of asphalt. Our neighborhoods are more livable thanks to corner markets.

What The Deli lacks in selection, it makes up for in accessibility. I’ll take walkability over 50 kinds of cereal and 14 kinds of peanut butter any day of the week.

Women haul groceries on foot in near west Cleveland. Photo: Angie Schmitt

As for the claim that that small food stores are unfairly exploiting their consumers, even the USDA’s analysis doesn’t support that conclusion. A 2009 study by the agency [PDF] found that those in the lowest income bracket (those that make between $8,000 and $30,000 annually) pay just 1.3 percent more than those in the next highest income bracket for food. Factor in the fact that many of these folks don’t need to pay for gas, car insurance and maintenance, and suddenly walkable food markets start to seem like a bargain.

Why does all this matter? The food desert problem, at least the way it’s been framed, seems to make a strong argument for cities to offer tax incentives for suburban-scale grocery stores to enter the city. Indeed the Obama Administration has offered $400 million to help expand food access in American food deserts. But if a big, corporate supermarket gets an unfair, taxpayer-funded boost, what will that mean for The Deli or Stockyard Meats?

There is a very logical, business explanation for why this hasn’t occurred already. The new grocery store would have to be within one-half mile to serve people who don’t drive, which is a significant part of the Cleveland market. The city simply doesn’t have the density to support so many large, walkable groceries. Instead, small markets fill that niche.

Without small markets like The Deli, food access and malnutrition would be a much bigger problem in Cleveland and many other cities throughout the United States. Rather than dismissing these businesses, the USDA should study these stores, how they make their stocking decisions and what room there is for improvement. Large grocery stores may offer a wide variety of fresh produce, but they come with a built-in deficit when it comes to accessibility for car-free people.

  • Just did a Google Maps search for “grocery” near my home in Brooklyn. 8 out of 10 of the top hits are by no reasonable definition a grocery. I don’t know the best way to reconcile the modern convenience and benefit of supermarkets with a move towards a less car centric transportation infrastructure, but it’s undeniably true that currently many urban areas don’t have sufficient convenient access to healthy and affordable food choices.

  • John

    For stores to flourish in walkable urban areas, parking requirements should be relaxed. Those wonderful corner stores might actually be illegal to build because of minimum parking requirements. Do away with a minimum number of required parking spaces for grocery stores in urban areas, and you very well might see the free market fill in those “food deserts” and existing stores expand a bit.

  • Yeah, Google is a completely unreliable source for finding grocery stores. I’ve often tried using it when I was traveling and the large majority of results are crap — places that no longer exist, have never existed, don’t sell groceries, …

  • jim

    I’ve been saying this for years. In my South Philly neighborhood I might have to go to one store for an avocado and queso and another for spinach and tomato but I can still get those things. In neighborhoods where you have cultures that emphasize those kinds of foods you find them in abundance. In neighborhoods where the emphasis is on fried/packaged/prepared foods you find a lot of that.

  • jess

    Uh, wow. Just too much to comment on. How long are these lovely markets open? My corner markets in San Francisco, which I ADORE, close by 7-8. I work a white-collar job, so it is convenient to me to frequent them. Years ago when I worked a service industry job in Boston, and walked home from work well past 10pm, I bought stuff from big chains, because they were open on my walk home from work (haven’t owned a car in years). Yes, I still had charming stores that sounded like this “Deli,” but I didn’t have time to go to them. And by the way, I’m white, so there aren’t really any suspicions regarding to me when I walk into a store owned by people of a different ethnicity (aside from the skeptical “can that girl handle that spicy Kimchi she’s buying?” look that I get sometimes.) Other people do not have the privileged of comfortably shopping in every ethnic supermarket, much less the privilege of finding their foreign products quaint and interesting. You might think canned octopus is awesome and exotic (do you ever buy it, or do you like it as a backdrop on the shelf?), but does everyone? When you are a yuppie you might relish the exotic strange stuff in the Vietnamese market (which many yuppies don’t actually buy when they realize its not organic and/or vegan), but when you are tired, have worked all day, and are trying to feed a family of kids you might be simply more stressed by shelves of unfamiliar products. Especially since you would have to learn how to prepare them. Which you don’t have time to do.

    Obviously the food problem in the country is multifaceted. Big-box stores everywhere is not the solution. But this “guys! there is this quaint ethnic market on my street that is super-cheap and have crazy things like octopus in a can! I love it!!!” is not convincing in the least. Do some research.

  • Rob

    What a tremendous article, Angie. As a born-and-raised Detroiter, I’m well aware of the food desert arguments. You’ve expressed my concerns with this food desert discourse better than I could of myself. Thank you!

  • Nice piece. I have been making this argument for a number of years. The point is to provide the right kind of support system to work with smaller entrepreneurs, to get better foods available at the local stores, if they aren’t already available. Market type operations are also a way to bring together smaller entrepreneurs, who collectively can offer a greater variety of items than they could individually.

    Another thing is delivery. E.g., a local Hispanic food supermarket (small stores, but they have at least 3, with 2 in DC) will drive the people home if they purchase at least $50. That allows stores to serve a greater area than a 1/2 mile radius.

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/02/mapping-retail-trade-areas-for-dc.html

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2011/05/um-where-are-dcs-food-deserts.html

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2008/02/food-deserts-are-complicated-places.html

  • Jess this was nonsensical rant.

    The point was not that you can settle for octopus in a can at the local ethnic grocery store. That example was meant to illustrate the variety that is available. My local corner markets have all the staples of food that you need and you can also get specialty foods like octopus in can if that is something you eat. Most corner markets here in NYC are open 24/7 and its the large chains that actually close. It all depends on if a store can continue to keep up volume through the evening, if the city makes it cheaper for the big store to do business then that makes it easier to be open later. The point is if cities support corner markets through zoning, parking, and tax policy, instead of giving them a disadvantage in policy compared to big box, it can be a very healthy and convenient way to get food.

  • Ben

    Good one Angie. I remember when Coventry used to have the Medic drug store. The store was fairly pricy and there wasn’t any produce. I remember towards the end of it’s life Medic started to offer produce in one of it’s aisles. Now the store has been replaced by a Marcs which is a full service grocer and still offers a pharmacy. The store is a little more cramped than a larger supermarket, but the tradeoff is it’s quick access to local residents.

  • I’m not a foodie but I work with them. Detroit has 86 independent grocery stores which are often ignored in the food desert stories. It also has one of the nation’s largest public markets. But, one issue is/was the state issues public food assistance on a monthly basis. This leads to highly cyclical purchasing which makes it difficult for corner stores to stock items with short expiration dates. There were talks about making this a bi-monthly payment system, but not being a foodie, I don’ t know whether it was implemented or not.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo!! I’m sure the huge amount of corner stores in NYC where I pick up small essentials would go completely overlooked in such a misleading study. I won’t argue that, in reality, I’ve seen many places around the country (and in NYC) where you really can’t get quality food (best store in an old hood of mine in Brooklyn had the WORST produce I’ve ever seen… bugs, mold, shriveled), but corner stores being overlooked just adds to the problem of stressing a false need for more big-box stores.

    Many small markets is a huge step towards sustainability and strong local economies.

  • jess

    @google-c6398336480a4370fd1d7ac9268efb0e:disqus
    Sorry if was ranty, it wrote this annoyed and tired, but the writer does not seem to have any interest really looking into the problems of the working poor. Which is typical of blogs like this one, which seems to be one big circle-jerk for “progressive” middle class Americans (I got here via a friend’s link and I’m not coming back, don’t worry). She “thinks” these prices are reasonable. Based on what? Working class people only pay 1% less for food- but what quality of food? do they buy less overall? or buy foods with cheap, empty calories?– the study didn’t say. I need more information than a snapshot from this market (in which the prices are not even particularly cheap compared to my own corner markets.)

    And it *is* extremely problematic class issue to see ethnic foods as a quaint decoration. Often this is a sign that this store you claim to “love” is soon going to be priced out of your neighborhood, and then where does the family-run grocery go when the boutique cheese shop moves in? You can tell the writer is not even close working class (the distinction between cheese/”real cheese” and beer/”good beer”). And again, you might find this kind of corner market cute if you are young hipster or yuppie, but it can be alienating to people who find these products strange, especially if there are existing racial tensions between those who own the stores and those who may be shopping there.

    It’s not the general idea that I disagree with, but it’s the naive and privileged tone that makes me mad. I love my corner stores. Congrats on yours for being open 24-hours, but I don’t think that’s a national trend. I also hate going to supermarkets. And I agree that cities should support corner markets though zoning, but most places aren’t like NYC, San Francisco, or downtown Cleavland. The rich are moving to the cities and the poor are more and more suburban. The existing infrastructure in *these* places is car dependent. It will take more than zoning for that to change. In the meantime, this sort of patronizing naive writing doesn’t help anyone.

  • jens

    Very good post! I (living in dc) make trips to large grocery stores every few weeks, but I get most of my daily produce and things like milk, eggs, etc. from very small local stores like the YES! organic and a small-ish non-chain grocery store. Why would anyone ever use the standard described above in trying to decide where fresh food is availabel? And we haven’t even touched on the increasing number of city farmers’ markets where you can get some of the best fresh local produce and meats. I’d rather eat that than from Giant any day of the week!

  • Danmaceda

    I read the USDA food desert piece recently then tried to get detail on the census tracts in DC that were supposedly used in the map. The data download provided the census tracts by state but DC not being a state is not included and an email to the contact listed gets no response.

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