Trying to improve Detroit's grocery stores

Apr 25, 2011

All this year, Michigan Radio has been taking a weekly look at things that are working to improve the state. Today: we take a look at food and Detroit. The city has been called a “food desert,” because of its lack of grocery stores. One group has been trying to change that. Sarah Fleming is the program manager of the Green Grocer Project. It was launched a year ago by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, and we asked her how it's going.

The Green Grocer Project began by trying to locate and evaluate all the grocery stores in Detroit. Fleming says their findings contradict the widely held belief that Detroit is a “food desert.”

“There is definitely a perception that we have no grocery stores in the City of Detroit, and while we have no chains, we do actually have eighty-plus independent grocers in the city that are working to serve the residents and operate effectively as business owners in the city.”

While eighty stores in Detroit qualified as grocers, many of them weren’t operating at their full potential. Improving the quality of goods and services provided by these stores has been a big part of the Green Grocer Project’s work, says Fleming.

“The Green Grocer Project really targets going into these stores, looking at their operations, helping them identify roadblocks, improve those operations, and then help them make plans for improvements an actual reality.”

The problems facing the grocery stores varied greatly from store to store, and Fleming says the Green Grocer Project has assisted grocers in a variety of ways.

“Our technical assistance (TA) program was really honed to address specific operational issues for grocers. We offer TA in areas such as product handling, marketing, store design, sourcing and supplier relations, sustainability, so, energy efficiency, helping them with their merchandising inside the store, helping them with their customer service, as also with their accounting and bookkeeping procedures.”

The Green Grocer Project launched in May of 2010, and, now almost one year in, Fleming says she’s been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of grocery store owners in the community.

“When we started, we weren’t necessarily sure how the project would be received. You know, would the grocers welcome us with open arms? Would there be skepticism? And I’m happy to say that we have really been welcomed with open arms. It’s been an actual overwhelming response in the positive response and also the amount of people who want to be involved in the program.”

Although the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, Fleming says the Green Grocer Project still has a long way to go.

“We’re still a work in progress. We have been able to award, to-date, five technical assistance grants to five different grocers in the city, and these grants will improve everything from the type of produce in the stores, to the appearance of the stores, to the safety of the stores, to the accessibility of the stores. So, I think as these technical assistance operations, programs continue to move forward and then we’re able to help the grocers fund some of these improvements through our revolving loan fund, we’ll really start to see some marked improvements in access and quality and service.”

Ultimately, Fleming would like to create a Detroit where all the residents have a reliable grocer nearby. Beyond just providing healthy food options, Fleming thinks well-run grocers can inspire a sense of community.

“I would love to see a Detroit where every community has a retail outlet that provides them fresh food, that provides them easy access, that is welcoming, that is clean, and that is really acting as a community anchor… You run into your neighbor, you know you can get good meat, you know that you can get fresh produce, it’s not too far from your home, and you choose to shop there as opposed to leave the city to go somewhere else.”

Standing between Detroit’s grocers and Fleming’s dream for them is the problem of financing. When a small business is only making a small profit each month, it’s difficult to address any issue other than the day-to-day operations, says Fleming.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that grocers face is lack of access to traditional financing, traditional capital. Small businesses have a hard time, in general, especially in inner cities. When you’re operating a penny-profit business, like a grocery store, that adds to the challenge. And then you layer the additional challenge of today’s economy on top of it, and it makes it really hard for these guys to get lending for the type of things they need: tenant improvements, equipment updates, things like that. It’s just very difficult. And so I think really the financing is going to be a critical component to helping make these improvements and improve, at the end of the day, the lives of the residents in the city.”

Eliot Johnson – Michigan Radio Newsroom