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

By Alex B. Hill


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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How Bad Is Food Insecurity for Disabled Americans? It’s worse than the Census data show

Elaine Gerber

With the 2020 Census around the corner and proposed changes to it highly politicized , I want to hold up to everyone – especially my fellow food ethnographers – how important recent changes in how “we count,” count!

For example, prior to the 2010 Census, we did not know how many blind and visually impaired people were living in the US because the Census did not disaggregate “sensory impairment” data and lumped blind and Deaf people together into one category.  Yet, their needs vis a vis food access and security would be quite different, such as reading tiny nutrition labels or communicating with the cashier.  Thankfully this hard-fought change was successful, and supports the development of policy solutions for various subpopulations.

As an applied anthropologist and disability studies scholar, these issues are important to me—and many others:  approximately 20% of working-aged adults have some form of impairment or disability.  Moreover, the tight relationship between poverty and disability means that there is a high percentage of impairment (and by extension, disabled people) in the low-income and disenfranchised populations that many of us work with, even if we don’t look for it or ask about it directly.

I have been arguing for over 10 years that access to food is much harder for disabled Americans than for their non-disabled counterparts (see Eat, Drink, and Inclusion) But there were no large-scale national datasets that either collected or de-aggregated their data in such a way to prove this.  So I was thrilled to see the Census report released in 2013 that confirmed the problem of a “dietary divide.”

These census data show that nearly one-third (31.8%) of all U.S. households with food insecurity included a working-age disabled adult and nearly 38% of households with very low food security included a working-age disabled adult.  By comparison, 12% of households with no working-age disabled adults were food insecure.  The census also demonstrated that food insecurity is an issue even when disabled people were employed: over 20% of households with a disabled adult who was working full-time were food insecure.

These statistics are incredibly valuable.  Yet, these do not fully capture the extent of food insecurity for disabled people.

One, these likely underestimate the problem, as the census data cited above are self-reported.  The census numbers might not accurately reflect the number of people who have highly stigmatized conditions (such as cognitive or psychiatric impairment); mental health issues are often not acknowledged, let alone disclosed, and many other hidden/non-visible disabilities are frequently underreported.  Estimates of rates of mental illness alone range from 20-80%  of the general population, with certain segments, such as veterans and college students, experiencing a disproportionate amount of that burden.  Further, ethnographic accounts have illustrated that there are many disabled people – people with impairments that would qualify as “disabled” under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) – who do not identify as disabled, including people with everyday health problems, such as a “bad back,” hypertension, migraines, and chronic pain, as well as those whose membership in this category is temporary (e.g., see Webber et al).  These conditions will affect how often someone can get to the market or how many groceries they can carry home, yet these people most likely would not have been included in the 2013 census numbers.

Two, the data only include non-institutionalized adults, thus leaving out several key populations.  Keywords here are “adult” and “institutionalized.”  The census data does not include disabled children or any seniors (people 65 and older) – and seniors represent the largest demographic of disabled people in the U.S., even if culturally we prefer to consider these people “elderly,” rather than impaired.  Nor does it include the many disabled working-aged adults who are living in group homes, larger institutions, and nursing homes, or who are incarcerated.  The DOJ estimates that imprisoned people are 3-4 times more likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population.  There is every reason to believe that food insecurity is as bad, if not worse, for institutionalized disabled persons.  Nothing about the care of people in institutions generally, nor the history of the treatment of disabled people in this country, would suggest otherwise.

These numbers are only part of the picture. These statistics do not describe the qualitative ways in which disabled people’s experiences accessing food is different from that of non-disabled people, nor does it address other aspects related to food insecurity beyond food acquisition, such as cooking and food preparation, inclusion and commensality that accompanies dining, or the development of cultural identities (e.g., adulthood status) linked to independent food choice. Yet, research suggests that disabled people experience additional barriers shopping, cooking, and dining. For more, see an executive summary of my #EatDis research, AND stay tuned to this blog.

Elaine Gerber is a medical anthropologist and disability studies scholar who works at Montclair State University.  She formerly served as the Senior Research Associate at the American Foundation for the Blind and as President of the Society for Disability Studies.


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Radio Ethnography, Restaurant Kitchens and #MeToo

Our SAFN president David Beriss has put out a call for blog posts on food workers, food service, restaurant kitchens and the #MeToo movement.

So my ears perked up during a long ice-bedeviled drive from Virginia to Connecticut when The Splendid Table’s February 2, 2018 program began to play over my car’s radio (always tuned to NPR), with a preamble introducing the issue of #MeToo. The featured theme was restaurant kitchens, their people, and their complicated communities, and the first guest was Amy Thielen, chef and author of the 2017 memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, about coming up through the ranks as a chef. (#649: Behind the Restaurant available at

The podcast will be of interest to our SAFN scholars, both for its content and as an example of ethnography. The longform interview explored sexual harassment, intimidation and quid pro quo sexual demands in food service settings. It reached a lot of people, conveyed the real-time process of thinking through and reflecting on this issue, and of course, the actual voices of the speakers, with their inflections, pauses, emphases. The same segment explored how restaurant kitchens are both high-stakes and “family,” but the speakers did not relate how those realities promote either an atmosphere in which quid pro quo sexual harassment flourishes—or in which targets of harassment can turn to resources and supports not available in other professional settings.

So, I am newly invigorated to think through and try radio ethnography again. In the 1990s, I co-developed and carried out the ethnography for a radio program series about “community” that was broadcast in southwestern Virginia by WVTF, the NPR affiliate. It was well-received and I hope to develop another on food justice and security movements and work in New England. I would love to hear other SAFN members’ thoughts and experiences with this ethnography medium, its shortcomings and strengths.

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