Race, Food, and Rebellion: Detroit’s History and Conflicts over Food Access

By Alex B. Hill  http://alexbhill.org


In the City of Detroit there is a history of unequal access to quality grocery stores and discriminatory treatment while shopping. Many Detroiters continue to hold perceptions of poor quality food and discriminatory treatment in local Detroit stores based on decades of experience. Two of my recent articles address the impact of labeling Detroit a “food desert” and engage consumers in their own experiences and perceptions around food access.

The “food desert” label has been both accepted and refuted in Detroit. The majority of academic researchers lean towards labeling Detroit as a food desert; however, many have come to that conclusion without adequate assessment of community perceptions of food access or historic barriers to buying food in the city. Access is a key word when talking about food, culture, and place and is where many researchers simply tally the number of stores and measure the distance of people to those stores. However, just because a grocery store is close by doesn’t mean that people want to shop there or are treated well when shopping.

In the article, “Critical inquiry into Detroit’s ‘food desert’ metaphor” I examined how media outlets use “food desert” as a negative label, but local food advocates find the label their continuing work to address inequitable access to food in the city.

“Most neighborhoods have a grocery store and people have found ways to adapt to what they have. It’s not good, just, or fair, but they piece together family food needs in many ways. Some people see the term as a personal affront.” – Woman, 51, Local Nonprofit

The article digs into the unequal power relations in media discourse while lifting up the perspectives of local food advocates in the purported “food desert” of Detroit, using Katherine McKittrick’s discussions on the production of black geographies.

“At the beginning it had its role, but now it’s being abused, not abused, but used against Detroit. It’s been blown out of proportion.” – Woman, 33, Local Nonprofit

Community food advocates largely found the negativity of the label overshadowing the important work that they were doing. They noted that the label allowed well-funded nonprofits and media outlets to drive a narrative contradictory to what food advocates were seeing in their communities. Food advocates were seeing grocery stores and community gardens and farmers markets, but what was largely missing was opportunities linked to income, jobs, and education.

Detroit has long been supplied with food by local, independent grocers located in neighborhoods while there have only been a few chain supermarkets to ever exist within the city limits. If you lived in the segregated Black neighborhoods of Detroit, you likely would have relied on black businessmen like Berry Gordy Sr., father of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. Gordy opened a grocery store to serve the Black community in the 1920s. By 1955, there were 69 supermarkets operated by Kroger, A&P, and other small local suppliers in Detroit. In 1959, Borman Food Stores Inc. bought up smaller chains and expanded to 46 stores in Detroit. In 1966, Borman Food Stores announced the opening of three superstores under the name of Farmer Jack. The following year everything would change.

Detroit, 1967.

In our article “Detroitists: Reflections of Detroit Ethnographers at the Anniversary of the 1967 Rebellionwe explored how civil unrest was fueled by ongoing discrimination in food and retail industries. In interviews with local residents after the riots, the Detroit Urban League and the Detroit Free Press found that 54 percent of Detroiters identified grocery stores as places where they were treated badly more than any other type of establishment. The 1967 Rebellion highlighted the juxtapositions of food, power, and race in a notably black area of the city along Detroit’s 12th street. Robert Ward Jr., who witnessed the disturbance in 1967, recalled that the first business to be looted was a white-owned grocery store, while the black-owned grocery store across the street remained untouched. Discussing the rebellion, Thomas Sugrue wrote,

“Few blacks worked where they shopped. Fewer felt any loyalty to neighborhood stores.”

In group and individual interviews that I conducted across Detroit in 2014, I found that most Detroiters still felt discrimination in grocery stores and wanted to see improved customer service. One Detroiter even noted that he wanted grocers to “treat everybody right.” The majority of participants noted that they established weaving foodways through Detroit and its nearby suburbs to carry out their food shopping with the positive treatment, environment and service that they deserved.

In Detroit, race and food have been intertwined for decades. While the city is far from seeing a present-day “rebellion,” the events of 1967 demonstrate the historical basis for understanding where and how different communities and racial groups in Detroit access food today. These deep racial histories define the current food landscape more than any other factor and provide critical framing for future progress.


Hill, Alex B. “Critical inquiry into Detroit’s “food desert” metaphor.” Food and Foodways 25, no. 3 (2017): 228-246.

Hill, Alex B., and Maya Stovall. “The Detroitists: Reflections of Detroit Ethnographers at the Anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion” Anthropology News 58, no. 4 (2017).

Bio:  Alex B. Hill works to address the impacts of health disparities from chronic diseases through data analysis and community engagement strategies. His personal research is focused on food access, health disparities, and racial justice. Alex’s projects and research focus on the need for greater community involvement at all levels and specifically highlight the intersections of power, privilege, and race.

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