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Detroit’s Eastern Market: A Food Hub in a Food Desert

Posted by Debbie Tropp, Branch Chief, Farmers Market and Direct Market Research Branch, AMS in Food and Nutrition Farming
Feb 21, 2017
Shed Two at Detroit’s Eastern Market
Shed Two at Detroit’s Eastern Market

Look up Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, in USDA’s Food Environment Atlas and it is obvious that local residents have some significant challenges in accessing healthful food.  An alarmingly high number of households that lack a car in Wayne County are located further than one mile from the closest grocery store, meaning that many families struggle to get access to fresh and healthy food.  

Indeed, the closure of two supermarkets in 2007 left Detroit as the largest city in the country without a single full-service supermarket within its boundaries. A recent study indicates that over half a million of Detroit’s residents live in neighborhoods where they must travel twice as far to reach a grocery store than they do to reach a convenience store. As a result, many families are forced to buy their meals at these convenience stores, where microwavable pre-prepared meals and fast food are well-stocked, and fresh and healthy foods are often hard to find. Detroit, in other words, is a food desert.

But, there is good news! Eastern Market Corporation, one of the nation’s longest operating public markets has taken on the challenge of addressing Detroit’s significant food access issues. Eastern Market has developed a comprehensive “food hub,”  coordinating aggregation and distribution for many of Michigan’s small and mid-size farmers who are producing the healthy food that Motor City residents need and want.  With nearly 500,000 of Wayne County’s 1.9 million residents relying on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for their food purchases, the market director knew that it was important to ensure that his organization could process SNAP benefits. Today, Eastern Market processes up to $30,000 of SNAP transactions per month.  What’s more, SNAP benefits redeemed at Eastern Market are doubled for each participating household with the support of the Fair Food Network, an organization that provides a financial match to SNAP redemptions through its Double Up Food Bucks program.

As part of the USDA’s interest in examining  how actively coordinated food hubs can play an important role in eradicating food deserts, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has partnered with Eastern Market through a cooperative research agreement to expand the availability of fresh, healthful  and locally-produced food throughout Detroit.  Our to-do list includes:

  • Developing more direct-to-consumer marketing activities in neighborhoods challenged by poor public transportation systems;
  • Training farm vendors  about emerging opportunities for direct-to-consumer sales in food desert neighborhoods;
  • Facilitating deliveries between the region’s local growers and organizations who are dedicated to distributing fresh, healthful food directly to Detroit’s neighborhoods in need; and,
  • Educating local residents about available nutrition assistance programs and emerging market outlets.

As a food hub, Eastern Market is uniquely positioned to serve all people in Detroit while economic benefits to local farmers, ranchers, and dairies.  Eastern Market and its member tenants provide a bevy of wholesale services that open new markets for the region’s small and midsize producers—including aggregation, distribution, processing and commercial market opportunities.  Eastern Market also houses prepared food businesses (like ravioli and fresh salsa).  They’re even planning to redevelop a full square mile in a dedicated economic development district to bring in additional business incubators, restaurants, retailers, wholesale services and a distribution center – all designed to help rebuild southeast Michigan’s regional food system and eliminate Detroit’s food access problems.

By integrating all of these diverse business functions into one centralized, coordinated regional “food hub,” Eastern Market’s business development model can be expected to bring good things to Detroit.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Farming

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Dan Krotz
Dec 17, 2010

Debbie, I've been really enjoying this blog. Nice piece here...and I enjoyed the piece Jim did the other day. Best, and Happy Holidays.

Eric Y
Dec 19, 2010

You have obviously never been to Detroit. There are nearly 80 independently-owned supermarkets within city limits. These are high quality stores that offer fresh meats, produce, dairy items and everything necessary for a healthy diet. You may want to check your facts before writing "the closure of two supermarkets in 2007 left Detroit as the largest city in the country without a single full-service supermarket within its boundaries." Both these stores you reference have been reopened by an independent operator.

Dec 19, 2010

I enjoyed reading the good news about @EasternMarket, Debbie. Can you share more details about how @EasternMarket is "coordinating aggregation and distribution for many of Michigan’s small and mid-size farmers" and the new direct-to-consumer marketing activities? I assume that transport logistics is a major consideration; for example, where does a farmer/vendor drive from in traveling to the @EasternMarket and which farm(s) and point(s)-of-aggregation do they pass during their drive to Detroit. Is the business development model using any mobile geo-location services to manage the logistics?

Dec 23, 2010

Some big cities will not let Walmart build stores. I wonder if Detroit is among them. Detroit probably has the space.

Les Bergeron
Jan 22, 2013

Way to go Eastern Market Corporation! We need to ensure that every family has access to healthy, quality foods.