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Why Whole Foods Is Scoring Big Points in Detroit

Food justice activists worried that Whole Foods could jeopardize local businesses teamed up with the company to work on solutions.
 
 
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Photo Credit: wallyg via Flickr creative commons

 
 
 
 

When we first heard Whole Foods was coming to Detroit, there were many concerns: How would it add value to the community? Would it actually serve the majority of people in the city, or just the gentrifying force that calls the Cass Corridor "Midtown"? Would it obliterate the smaller grocers in the neighborhood, including Goodwells and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe? Would it have a negative impact on Eastern Market, our vibrant local farmer’s market? And of course, would it increase local jobs?

Now, Whole Foods has opened in Detroit. And in spite of my intention to resist it until all of those questions were answered, I had to go check it out.

The first thing I noticed was the diversity of people working the checkout lines and holding it down in each department—it looked surprisingly like Detroit. There were more black people in the store than I have ever seen at a Whole Foods anywhere, which makes sense in majority black Detroit. I was pleased to hear the conversations that were happening between black people, about what gluten-free meant, recommending their favorite smoked salmons and raw cheeses, sharing the sense of food pride people get when being healthier together.

I knew that the differences I saw between this Whole Foods and others I’d seen could be attributed to local community members who engaged with Whole Foods in a year-long process. Whole Foods sent representatives to build relationship with the community once it was clear that they were definitely coming to Detroit. What eventually formed out of those conversations was a community advisory group, which has since grown into a body called Equitable Detroit, doing ongoing accountability work with Whole Foods with an eye toward other corporate entities looking at the city for economic opportunity. 

I interviewed three organizers about their experience collaborating with Whole Foods: Linda Campbell of Building Movement, Gloria Rivera of Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, and Mary Lou Malone of MOSES. All are members of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. While there is still work to be done, the activists agreed that what they experienced could be applied to other Whole Foods in other cities and to other entities looking to develop responsibly in Detroit. 

Adrienne Maree Brown: How do you feel the process has gone?

Linda Campbell: It’s been a good process. I think it’s been a learning process for those of us around the table who have been engaged. The question was how to best represent the concerns of the community with the development of this, and keep it in the frame of development. A lot of folks feel like, Oh it’s a grocery store, it will bring opportunities and diversity, but at the root of it is how decisions are made about development in Detroit and about how to spend resources. That has been a learning process for us.

Gloria Rivera: We’re really addressing systems, in this case the system around development. Which of course bumps up against other systems—housing, equity. That adds to the complexity, and also adds to creating better, more thought through processes for development. And I mean better than the more silo focused approach—it’s not one issue, it's a system.

Mary Lou Malone: It’s been a learning process for Whole Foods too, not just for us. A group with this kind of relationship with Whole Foods is unique in the country.

LC: To their credit, we have enjoyed a level of access—if we ask for a meeting with [co-CEO] Walter Robb they will make it happen. They are open. Having that kind of accessibility has helped enlighten the process and the learning on our side, But it’s not without tensions.

 
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