Commentary: Will Whole Foods Really Bring Hope to the Motor City?

While we're happy the community finally has a grocery store, it is doubtful this high-end store will be the savior it’s hailed to be. 

Posted: 06/07/2013 02:10 PM EDT

One time at Whole Foods in New York's Union Square neighborhood, I remember a cashier ringing up a sack of purple organic grapes. When she told me they were $11, I gasped and told her to put them back. Another time at the South Loop Whole Foods in Chicago, I walked out with two small bags and a $90 receipt, perplexed as to what I bought that was that expensive.

Both of these times, I kicked myself for not going to Trader Joe’s instead. They don't call Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" for no reason.

I bring up these moments in lieu of the recent hoopla about the grand opening of Whole Foods in Detroit this past week. As BET.com recently reported, there were marching bands playing, people lined up around the corner to get in and city officials and clergymen addressing the crowd. As our Jonathan Hicks wrote, "This was no ordinary affair."

And from an economic standpoint, Whole Foods will help the city that is slowly rebuilding itself by providing jobs to residents, boasting local produce from urban farmers and bringing in revenue that would have gone to stores in the surrounding suburbs. Not to mention, the possibility that the store can lure other national retail stores into the city down the road.

And for a city that has been labeled (some would argue unfairly) a food desert, Detroit does have grocery stores — a whopping 115 of them — with Whole Foods adding to the crop of other independent and regional chain stores popping up throughout the city over the years such as Meijer, Spartan Stores, Kroger, Ye Olde Butcher Shoppes and Honey Bee Markets.

So yes, providing more choices, especially organic ones, is a good thing. But I can't help but to be skeptical about the pomp and circumstance over providing healthy food to a community — something that is a right, not a privilege. And I can't help but roll my eyes to all of this praise given to a store that boasts overpriced food that really, when you think about it, so many of  the city's residents, including those living in the Midtown neighborhood that houses the store, cannot even afford.

Real Talk: Nearly 40 percent of the population and 60 percent of the city's children live in poverty, most of them African-American. And poverty plays into hunger. A recent study by Feeding America found that millions of Black families lack the ability to maintain a healthy diet or have groceries in the home to feed their families due to low income.

And so while we praise the efforts from Whole Foods, perhaps the conversation about Detroit’s “food problem” should be less about Whole Foods' impact and more about making sure that the costs of groceries are affordable for the people who are counting their pennies the most. Perhaps we need to be very clear on how the proposed cuts to food stamps and fast food companies lobbying to Congress to get approval for recipients to use EBT at their establishments is going to worsen the health of the city’s poor.

And even more important, just having grocery stores in the 'hood isn’t enough: We have to make sure that the foods in the most vulnerable areas are fresh, quality and edible. And finally, we have to implement health and nutrition literacy programs to help people make better choices, teach them the importance of food labels and help folks eat healthier on the cheap.

And we know that cheap and Whole Foods don’t go together.

No, I am not hating on Whole Foods. I just want for us as a community to be more cautious of giving credit when credit's not really due and to be able to recognize a victory for gentrification when we see one.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Russell Contreras)


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