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Social Determinants of Health: Low-income Detroit residents

By: Zazai Owens M.Ed.


          My mother, grandmother and I walked several miles to the nearest “store” for groceries.We had no family car, so walking and catching the city bus were our only options. also “jitneys,” usually men with cars that sat outside of markets, who offered people rides home from the grocery store. The cost was usually no more than five dollars, if you didn’t live too far away from the store. This was our city’s version of what is now known as “rideshare,” (e.g. Uber, and LYFT).   Growing up in the inner city of Detroit in the 80’s, the terms Food Insecurity and Food Desert didn’t exist. Most of the neighborhood markets/stores, within walking distance, were basically liquor stores that sold expired meat, and had a few pieces of produce that should have been discarded. Most of the big chain supermarkets like Kroger and Farmer Jack (the latter no longer in Michigan), were in neighboring suburbs. Detroit lost its last chain grocery store three years ago when the last two Farmer Jack’s groceries closed. This seems incredible—a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket—but it’s true. No A&P. No Meijer’s. Not even a Wal-Mart. Any Detroiters who want fresh store-bought fruits and vegetables or wrapped meats have to get in their car and drive to the suburbs. That is, if they have a car (Longworth Richard C., 2011). Food is a fundamental human right, much like air and water. 

       Yet hunger and food insecurity are widespread in the United States. In 2020, almost 14 million households—10.5 percent of the population—did not have enough food to meet their needs, which greatly affected their health, well-being, and quality of life. From June 1 to June 13, 2022, almost 24 million households—including 11.6 million households with children under the age of 18—reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the week. More than 7 million households were food insecure despite receiving federal food and nutrition benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and almost 4 million of these households included children. Notably, low-income households of color, often led by single mothers, tend to have higher rates of hunger and food insecurity due to historic and structural racism and discrimination in economic opportunity, employment, education, housing, and lending. 

Defining food insecurity

     The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) refers to food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity, then, can be understood as the lack of access to or the limited availability of nutritionally adequate foods that prevents all household members from leading active and healthy lives. Food-insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time, but food insecurity reflects the choices households sometimes need to make between meeting basic needs such as housing, health and child care, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods. 

Kurt Bauschardt  

      The city of Detroit has an abundance of Urban Farms that have recently popped up in recent years. In Detroit and other cities where these urban farms fill a need, urban farms are nothing less than a symptom of civic catastrophe, a desperate last measure for people trapped in destitute neighborhoods that have become food deserts—places without decent grocery stores, with no local food available except for chips and soda at a convenience shop on the corner. (Longworth Richard C., 2011)

  For the vast majority of crops, however, the urban farms weren’t especially effective. They required far more labor than traditional farms, and as a result, the total value of the inputs into the crop exceeded the income from selling it. In other words, the urban farmers were losing money, at least by traditional accounting measures, check these company formation services to get the details. And the farms weren’t especially sustainable, with only about 10% of all the inputs coming from renewable resources. Again, labor was a major culprit, as it’s not considered very renewable, and urban farming is very labor-intensive. 


      Access to food, specifically fresh fruits and vegetables, has become a key reason that many researchers have labeled Detroit a “food desert.” However, this term has been both accepted and refuted by those who live and work in Detroit. There are numerous pathways for Detroit residents to access fresh foods, but access to healthy food is a complex issue with more than one cause.

     The Detroit Food Policy Council reported that one in three households in Detroit rely on SNAP/Food Stamps to put food on the table. This fact is a result of many things, notably Detroit’s racial tensions in the workforce, declining industry, and lack of economic opportunities. To qualify for SNAP/ Food Stamps a family of three would have to have an income less than $25,000 for the year (Hill, Alex B., Kuras, A. 2022).

     The Fair Food Network reported that 92% of SNAP/ Food Stamp retailers carried few or no fresh fruits and vegetables. However, almost all full-line grocery stores carry a range of fruits and vegetables, but they are not always high quality and it is not always possible for Detroit residents to get to these stores. Beyond transit to reach stores with fresh foods, Detroit residents have reported poor conditions and racism when shopping at some locations.

     In summary, food insecurity is linked to negative health outcomes in children and adults, and it may cause children to have trouble in school. Giving more people benefits through nutrition assistance programs, increasing benefit amounts, and addressing unemployment may help reduce food insecurity and hunger.

       Although, as an adult, I am able to drive myself to neighboring suburbs to purchase fresh quality foods, I see the effects of decades of living in a food desert. Food insecurity is evident in the students’ lunches brought from home, at the Detroit elementary where I teach, and the fast food restaurants on every corner where I live. I hope to see a Whole Foods on every corner someday.                           


1.Hill, Alex B. and Amy Kuras. Detroit Food Metrics Report 2020 (with 2021 Update). Detroit Food Policy Council (2022).

  1. Longworth Richard C. Good Magazine – Forget Urban Farms. We Need a Wal-mart:Wal-marts in Cities Mean Better Food (2011).



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