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RESEARCH ARTICLE: Food Availability and the Food Desert Frame in Detroit: An Overview of the City’s Food System

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 June 2015

Dorceta E. Taylor*
University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Kerry J. Ard*
Ohio State University, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Columbus, Ohio.
Address correspondence to: Dorceta E. Taylor, University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, 440 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1115; (phone) 734-763-5327; (fax) 734-936-2195; (e-mail)
Address correspondence to: Kerry J. Ard, Ohio State University, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, School of Environment and Natural Resources, 420A Kottman Hall, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210; (phone) 614-292-4593; (fax) 614.292.7432; (email)
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This article takes a new approach to studying food access. It combines environmental justice analysis with systems thinking in an examination of the food environment of Detroit. The article reviews food access literature and identifies how each body of scholarship’s underlying assumptions help or distort our understanding of urban food environments. The article argues for more comprehensive approaches to studying food access and demonstrates how such approaches can be implemented. We collected data from multiple sources, including ReferenceUSA, Orbis, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture, between 2011 and 2013 to build a database of food outlets in the city. We used SPSS 22 and ArcGIS 10.1 to analyze and map the data. The article analyzes the location of 3,499 food outlets in Detroit, comprising 34 categories food retailers, growers, supply chain, and food assistance programs. The study identified 96 supermarkets or full-line grocery stores; 1,110 small groceries, convenience stores, mini marts, and liquor stores; 279 specialty food stores; 306 pharmacies, dollar, and variety stores; 1,245 full-service and fast food restaurants and other food service outlets; 157 supply chain operations; 206 farms, community and school gardens, farmers’ markets, and produce markets; and 100 food assistance programs. The article finds that though Detroit has areas that lack food outlets, the portrayal of the entire city as a “food desert” is misleading. Moreover, the traditional approach of food desert research of using only or primarily the presence or absence of supermarkets and full-line grocery stores to study food access ignores many important venues from which people obtain food. It also ignores the strategies people use to cope with food insecurity and their responses to limited food access.

Environmental Practice 17: 102–133 (2015)

© National Association of Environmental Professionals 2015 

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