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Perpetuating Food Apartheid: New Urban Grocery Stores in Grand Rapids

March 8, 2017

Last week, Rapid Growth Media ran a piece about new grocery store efforts in Grand Rapids. The article, discusses food deserts and the variety of responses that people are involved in. Unfortunately, the article and the new grocery stores will only perpetuate food insecurity in Grand Rapids. 

There are several misconceptions that people have about those who experience food insecurity. The first misconception is the very language we use to try to describe the problem – food deserts.

The article states, “Calvin College defines food deserts as large continuous areas within urban areas where healthy and balanced food stores are difficult to access.” While it is true that people living in certain urban neighborhoods are limited in where they can access their food, the definition of food deserts is highly problematic.

Sociologists have been using the term food deserts since the 1970s, but the term is misleading in two ways. First, a desert is a thriving ecological system that provides plenty of food for the lifeforms that make up those ecosystems. Secondly, food deserts fails to convey the historical, economic and political dynamics which led to neighborhoods being food insecure.

The food system in the US has been evolving over the past 100 years and a large reason why there are limited food options available in many urban neighborhoods is because there has been a consolidation of grocery store chains that has led to large hyper-markets like Meijer or Walmart that require lots of land to accommodate the volume of food they carry and lots of parking since we are a car-dependent society.

The fact that grocery store chains exist are based on economic and political factors that made small, family-owned grocery stores obsolete, because they could not compete. These smaller stores could not compete, especially after the 1960s, when larger stores began to dominant the market, utilizing massive municipal subsidies, building near highways and other major road systems, investing in massive advertising budgets and appealing to the white population that was fleeing urban areas because of increased racial tensions, resulting in White flight.

On top of this, the highly subsidized food system began to promote and expand the amount of unhealthy food items, items that were highly processed and cheap to produce. Many of these products were not sold by smaller, family-owned stores.

However, increasing food insecurity not only means limited grocery store options, it means limited or no options for farmers markets or the use of urban land for neighborhood-based food growing. Too often, the term food deserts is limited to whether or not there are grocery stores, which excludes all other other ways that people can access food.

So, instead of food deserts, a term that would more accurately depict the limited food options in certain urban neighborhoods could be called food apartheid.

Food apartheid would more honestly reflect the social, economic and political forces that made the decisions that resulted in some urban neighborhoods having reduced food options. Food apartheid also is more honest because it reflects that the decisions about where people in urban spaces could access food was made by a small number of people, with no real input from the public, and it was a decision that primarily benefited white suburbanites while punishing communities of color.

What is happening now in cities across the US and in Grand Rapids, is that white people are flocking back to downtown and core urban neighborhoods and displacing people of color and working class white families.

In reading the Rapid Growth Media article it becomes clear that where all the “new” urban grocery stores that are featured, are in neighborhoods that are being gentrified. The downtown market, the Grand Central Market, Martha’s Vineyard, the new Meijer store on the near westside and the prosed grocery store that will be part of Diamond Place on Michigan near Medical Mile are all in areas where new development projects are displacing working class families and communities of color.

The upwardly mobile and disproportionately white professionals moving into these neighborhoods are now demanding more food purchasing options. In addition, these new grocery stores that are feature in the Rapid Growth article will actually not reduce “food deserts,” they are merely re-centering healthier food stores in increasingly white-dominated neighborhoods.

Thus, the new grocery options in urban Grand Rapids are not only not changing the food system, they are participating in the gentrification of neighborhoods that once were working class and communities of color dominant.

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