Detroit fights for access to fresh food

But it doesn’t get more basic than putting food on the table, and on this score too, Detroit is at the bottom.

A complaint heard often here is about the absence of a large “regular” grocery store. Where else in the country will you find a city of 900,000 without a real full-sized supermarket selling fresh, quality food?

On Thursday I caught a presentation by Rick Blocker, secretary treasurer of Local 876 United Food and Commercial Workers, on Detroit’s grocery store problem. Blocker lives in Detroit, but, like many others, must leave the city to do his food shopping.

Very few Detroit neighborhoods have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, said Blocker. In any neighborhood you can easily “walk to get high-fat foods, but have to drive to get quality food.”

The people of Detroit have a right to high-quality food, he said. That “right” has been denied since 2007 when the Farmer Jack grocery store chain closed and left the city without any national food chain operating within its borders.

Also devastating, said Blocker, was the loss of Farmer Jack’s 4,900 union employees. Today, 3,700 of them, many living in the city, are still without jobs.

To bring quality food back to the city, Blocker outlined how his union has joined with MOSES, a local group of diverse religious congregations that organizes for social justice, to develop a two-pronged approach.

On the one hand they are pressuring those small businesses that do sell food (often gas stations and small owner-operated stores) to maintain quality standards, by distributing “checklists” to community residents. The checklists ask residents to monitor stores on such things as cleanliness, ensuring that no food items are past the “sell by” date, and making sure refrigerated sections have thermometers and are kept at proper temperatures.

Second, they are working to open a cooperatively run, full-service supermarket in the city. Blocker indicated a location has been identified. In May, he noted, 250 people from the community turned out to voice support for the project.

Asked why the union is involved in such a campaign, he said that in addition to the community need for accessible healthy food, employees of union stores “have benefits such as health care and are insured that such things as promotions and work schedules are handled fairly.” The community also benefits and becomes stronger “when the union insures community standards are met,” he said.

Blocker has the experience to know. For 17 years he worked at a Detroit grocery store, eventually working his way up to become manger of the store’s dairy department. “It didn’t depend on who I knew,” he said, pointing to the union’s ability to enforce fair promotions.

He is confident the campaign will be successful. “We are not just giving lip service,” he said. “We have dedicated a lot of resources to the project. We are going to do what we have to, to get a quality store in the city.”

Cooperation between labor and the community is essential to rebuild Detroit and solve problems like this, he emphasized.

Blocker’s talk was organized by the Center for Community-Based Enterprise, which organized events bringing together Michigan labor, religious and community groups to discuss how problems can be addressed by grassroots initiatives.

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John Rummel
John Rummel

Activist John Rummel covers events in Michigan. It's not politics-only for John; he loves sports, the outdoors and a cold beer or two!