Whose responsibility is it to feed the poor? What is the difference between feeding the poor and making sure they haveaccess to the full menu of services they need for health?
November 14, 2014
Challenging elitism, racism, and obesity with a grocery store may sound crazy.Here’s what happened when Whole Foods tried to do it in Detroit.
To understand what led Whole Foods to put a grocery store in Detroit, you need to understand three things: The city’s reputation, its officials’ interest in changing it, and, most of all, Whole Foods’ larger aspirations. When Robb first began eyeing Detroit in 2009, the city was mostly known for crime, abandonment, and being a place from which, as one NPR broadcast said, “grocers flee.” Dateline NBC’s Chris Hansen compared Detroit to “some ravaged foreign nation” and portrayed residents hunting raccoons for food. “There are more than 400 liquor stores in Detroit. But if you want to buy food, good luck,” he said, adding—erroneously —that the city held just eight supermarkets, all of them discount stores. Empty, savage, and foodless: This was Detroit’s reputation when Robb first went there.
Indeed, Robb might never have considered opening a store in Detroit if he hadn’t had lunch with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a personal friend, on a trip to Washington, D.C., shortly after President Obama— and Vilsack—took office. Robb had been paying attention to studies around food access, and watched the first lady’s initial steps around food issues with interest; maybe, he thought, Whole Foods had a role to play. When he mentioned this to Vilsack, the secretary said he had recently met with a group of black ministers from Detroit who were asking for help addressing grocery store access in their city. He offered to put Robb in touch with city officials. ...
The store opened in June 2013 at the southern border of Midtown, a rebranded neighborhood that used to be known as the Cass Corridor, the city’s roughest skid row. Despite being in a city built for cars, the Whole Foods is an unusually walkable destination. Sitting at the corner of Mack and Woodward, it is across the street from the symphony, a block from an expanding medical complex (including Ruff’s son’s weight loss clinic), and a 15-minute walk from three college campuses. And, because it sits within five minutes of every freeway, it is also an easy stop for suburban commuters. From the store’s entryway, you cannot see any of the nearby signs of Detroit’s older reputation: burned out apartment buildings and vacant lots where the homeless gather, a check cashing joint adjacent to a liquor store. One black resident of Midtown, a marketer, compared his neighborhood’s relationship with the rest of the city to the protected section of Baghdad during the Iraq war. Midtown, he told me, is Detroit’s “Green Zone.” ...
Our class today is about savvy shopping,” she began, gesturing at a PowerPoint on a wall-mounted flatscreen television. White, trim, and plainly dressed, with long brown hair and low-top Converse sneakers, Musilli had moved to Detroit in 2011 to develop community partnerships for Whole Foods, attending city council meetings and doing ground-level outreach like teaching the budgeting class— which she’d started holding two years before opening day in a storefront office.
Earlier in the year, Musilli and I had discussed city residents’ initial response to the idea of the store. “People said, well, how do you expect Detroiters to afford this?” Musilli told me. “Many times those were not Detroiters, and those were white people saying ‘How are those people going to afford your food?’ ” There is such a stark hostility between the city’s affluent suburbs and Detroit, that it seemed possible that unnamed white suburbanites had sneered at Detroiters’ interest in Whole Foods. But it also was possible, I thought, that Musilli was telling this story to deflect attention from discussions of price...
There seem to be few things that irk Whole Foods representatives more than the phrase “Whole Paycheck,” a phrase that I remember Robb casually mentioning to me as an annoyance more than once. His dislike of the phrase was the first thing that came to mind when, on the Detroit store’s
opening day, Robb invited me to sit down, looked at me unblinkingly and said that if Whole Foods felt my story wasn’t going in the direction they wanted, he would stop cooperating.
Whether they knew the moniker or not, one of Detroiters’ worries about Whole Foods before it opened was price, which ranked as a top concern when the company solicited community input about the store. In my early conversations with Whole Foods for this article, I heard a lot about how prices were key to making the store accessible to residents; how the Detroit store was trying to counter its reputation for sticker-shock by limiting wine prices to $20, the same per-pound limit it set for meat; and how, in Robb’s words, those changes meant the store could serve “all of Detroit.” Even as Musilli tried to persuade shoppers like Ruff that cage-free eggs were worth the higher price, Robb was making the slightly contradictory case to reporters like me that Whole Foods’ prices were competitive with other stores...
“She told me you could help me,” said Brown, gesturing to a woman at the meat counter. Woolbright nodded and Brown began, without prompting, to list her health problems: epileptic seizures, diabetes, COPD. She didn’t drive. She had recently found herself eating cookies and chain smoking until the wee hours of the morning. “I’m not eating the right foods, I’m eating those Oreos,” she told me later, shaking her head. “I am. I’m going through them mothers like ...” Her voice trailed off, incredulous and embarrassed. “And I say to myself, something’s wrong ... I have to stop. So that’s why I’m here.”
Woolbright listened to Brown thoughtfully, then disappeared into the aisles, returning with an armful of food and a game plan. She held up a can of McCann’s steel-cut oats. “In the morning you have to put something bulky, heavy in your stomach. If you don’t weigh it down you will continue to crave high calorie foods.” She suggested making a big pot of oats on Sundays, and eating from that during the week, sweetening it with bananas or maple syrup. More advice followed: Canned beans, no sodium added, are a quick way to fill up. Whole wheat pasta cooks quickly and has whole grains. Oats were good for a green smoothie; she recommended buying a NutriBullet blender at Walmart. Brown nodded appreciatively and promised to email Woolbright if she had more questions, but she left the beans and oatmeal behind.
The changes Woolbright suggested weren’t complicated, but I had a hard time seeing even myself making them. The idea of reheating porridge for the week was distinctly unappealing. Buying a $100 blender for breakfast smoothies seemed unrealistic, particularly for someone living, as Brown did, on disability checks.
On that first visit to Whole Foods, Brown didn’t buy the store’s organic cookies or other junk food, but she didn’t heed much of Woolbright’s advice, either. As I accompanied her through the store, Brown seemed excited by the options before her. She bought Balinese barbecue tofu salad from the deli, a rotisserie chicken, turkey patties with spinach, chicken shish kebabs, a peach smoothie, and—in a nod to Woolbright’s advice—some produce, including five non-organic bananas. It all looked fresh, delicious, and wholesome, but the total came to $66.05, about one-third of Brown’s monthly grocery budget. With discipline, I guessed, it could cover lunch and dinner for about a week. ...
It was difficult to get Brown to talk for long about either supermarkets or changing her habits. Instead, discussions that started off with a grocery store quickly veered off course, derailed by the problems that preceded any thoughts Brown had about health. Without a car, unable to walk far, and living in acity with unreliable public transit, Brown mostly took cabs or depended on friends and family with cars. Her medications included prednisone, a steroid that made her ravenous. (She blamed it for her Oreo binges.) When Brown moved this spring, her new apartment in Hamtramck had no stove, further limiting her meal options.
Brown shared this list of obstacles nearly every time I asked her whether she had followed Woolbright’s advice. Sometimes she would talk about how much she had liked Woolbright, but after a phone consultation last summer, when Brown took down some notes about shopping, she said they hadn’t been in touch. When Brown moved, she lost the scrap of paper on which she’d written down Woolbright’s advice.
Brown was obese and unhappy about it. “I don’t want to be this way; I don’t,” she told me. But it was difficult to see grocery stores as a primary factor in her weight problem. On one visit last summer, her breakfast had been white bread, turkey, Miracle Whip, and mustard, an attempt at following Woolbright’s suggestion to eat lean meats. Though that sandwich was not a kale salad, it was also not a Big Mac and fries. When I returned this fall, I asked Brown how she was doing with following Woolbright’s advice, and she showed me to a lidless Tupperware in her refrigerator with corn kernels and green beans. “I’m a veggie person, really. I like broccoli and beans and corn,” she said. What little other food she had looked nominally healthy: chicken thighs, eggs, cheese slices, a jug of water, and a jug of Minute Maid punch (three for $5 at her neighborhood supermarket), condiments in the door. The problem, she said, was her sweet tooth. Last summer, it had been the Oreos; this year, money was tighter, so it was pancakes and syrup.
What seemed to be tripping Brown up wasn’t knowledge about nutrition so much as a debilitating sense that anything she tried to change—what she ate, how she spent her days—could spiral out of control, whether because of depression or finances or transport or health. Going to the store meant worrying about getting someone to drive her, she told me, and once there she had to worry about the driver getting upset with her for taking too long. Then she had to worry about trying to cook—she had only a microwave and a George Foreman grill—and even so she couldn’t stand long enough to cook much, anyway. At nearly 300 pounds, getting to a healthy weight felt insurmountable. Most days it felt easier, more predictable, less likely to result in failure, to just keep doing what she was doing.
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