Web Exclusive #3: “Independent Grocers, Vulnerable Residents, and Community Coalitions: We’re All Essential!”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Alex B. Hill

May 15, 2020: Detroit, Michigan

FIGURE 1. Detroit grocery landscape during COVID-19.

Food is a human right. Food is a privilege. Many Detroiters lack both.

Sitting with community members in the sweltering and sticky basement of an Eastside church in the summer of 2012 to discuss community-grocer relations, I never would have expected our conversations would set us up to lead the city government’s comprehensive response to local food retailers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In early March 2020, the food council executive director asked how we, a local grocery workgroup, could, “help grocery stores and other critical businesses to operate more safely at this time.” Our small band of non-profit, university, and local government members convened by the local food council had now become a critical connection to the local grocers. We pivoted quickly from our regular discussions on store assessments to how and where we could find masks, gloves, and informational signage to help stores better serve their customers and protect their staff.

I’ve been researching the conflicts and debates within the Detroit food retail landscape for ten years and recognized that coronavirus could lead to either a further breakdown in community-grocer relations, or an opportunity for grocers to show commitment to the community (Hill, 2017; Hill and Stovall, 2017). Grocers told us that they were scared of getting infected and concerned that people would crowd their stores. They told us that some people weren’t taking the virus seriously. A few grocers told us they were considering closing or did close because staff were no longer showing up for work out of fear. Grocers reported 20-90% reductions in deliveries. Labor shortages were commonplace and many grocers had 60% of their workforce stop showing up for work or quit due to COVID-19 fears.

Our coalition members shared stories about disparate responses between suburban, national grocery chains and Detroit-based independent grocers. Detroiters had provided feedback year after year that they preferred to shop at grocers outside of the city sometimes due to discrimination, sometimes due to lower prices. Grocery leakage spending data supported those stories with anywhere from $200-500 million dollars spent on groceries outside of Detroit by those living in Detroit (Hill and Kuras, 2017). We expected that local grocers would become busier with the COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” order, closed schools, and many shuttered businesses. Residents kept asking for guidance while shopping, needing information on which stores offered curbside pickup and “senior hours.”

FIGURE 2. Packed boxes with supplies for each grocery store ready for delivery, including floor stickers, posters, hand sanitizer, masks, and information from the local health department.

The coalition’s inability to meet in person had no impact on its effectiveness. We developed materials and gathered quotes from printers. Local retailer associations provided feedback and thanked us for our efforts. City government officials joined in and entire city departments were tasked with making sure grocers were supported with hand sanitizers, floor stickers and informational posters. Sign-ups for testing presented hope that essential food workers could continue to serve residents safely.

FIGURES 3 AND 4. Floor stickers and posters with information on physical distancing in grocery stores and other safety guidelines distributed to local grocers. COURTESY OF BANNER SIGN CO.

Detroit grocers did not offer food delivery. A dozen stores offered “senior hours” and seven offered curbside pickup as alternatives to in-store shopping. A few local restaurants reformatted to offer a small grocery selection while others took to packaging individual meals for sale (Houck, 2020). A local COVID-19 community mutual aid group on Facebook had numerous individuals volunteering or asking for small donations to do pickup and delivery groceries.

Besides independent grocery stores, the other side of accessing food in Detroit during the pandemic was food pantries with almost 200 local sites. Emergency food resources were the leading request for help (Roberts, 2020; Gordon, 2020). In Detroit, food pantries were overtaxed (Aguilar, 2020). Local food bank workers noted how they had never seen lines so long for boxes of emergency food items.


The Great Grocer Project began with community efforts in 2012 to improve dialogue between local grocers and community members. In 2014, members began formally meeting as the Detroit Grocery Coalition (DGC) with three primary goals for the project: (1) Assess and recognize high performing, community engaged grocery stores; (2) Support collaboration between grocery stores and communities; (3) Assist stores that want to improve the retail grocery environment. Members convened by DFPC include: Detroit Food Map Initiative, Wayne State University, Eastern Market Partnership, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Fair Food Network, National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, City of Detroit Office of Sustainability, and City of Detroit Health Department. Additionally, the coalition’s COVID-19 response was supported by the City of Detroit Department of Neighborhoods, Americana Foundation, Quicken Loans Community Fund, and the Midwest Independent Retailers Association (MIRA).


Aguilar, Louis. “Detroit food banks overrun by coronavirus demand.” Bridge Magazine. April 15, 2020. https://www.bridgemi.com/urban-affairs/detroit-food-banks-overrun-coronavirus-demand

Gordon, Virginia. “Food is top need in Detroit neighborhoods with highest rates of COVID-19.” Michigan Radio. April 24, 2020. https://www.michiganradio.org/post/food-top-need-detroit-neighborhoods-highest-rates-covid-19

Hill, Alex B., and Maya Stovall. “The Detroitists.” Anthropology News 58, no. 4 (2017): e221-e228.

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

Hill, A. B., and A. Kuras. “Detroit food metrics report 2017. Detroit Food Policy Council and Detroit Health Department.” (2017).

Houck, Breanna. “A guide to restaurants selling groceries in metro Detroit” Eater Detroit. April 21, 2020. https://detroit.eater.com/maps/detroit-restaurant-groceries-where-to-buy-vegetables-fruit-eggs-flour-yeast-meat-fish-bread-milk

Roberts, Adrienne. “Michigan food pantries see ‘intense demand’ as coronavirus crisis worsens.” Detroit Free Press. April 21, 2020. https://www.freep.com/story/money/business/2020/04/21/food-pantries-buying-more-food-growing-demand/5151308002/

Alex B. Hill is a researcher of urban health and leads the Detroit Food Map Initiative at Wayne State University. He teaches in urban studies, public health, geography and data visualization. His work highlights the intersections of power, privilege, and race in regards to health equity, access to basic needs, and the social implications of medicine.