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Urban Grocery

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Patty Cantrell
Detroit neighborhoods are getting young and old involved in growing and selling healthy food.

Malik Yakini remembers when produce trucks delivered fresh fruits and vegetables direct to Detroit neighborhoods.

“When I was a kid they drove up and down the streets every weekend with fresh produce,” recalled Mr. Yakini, who heads up the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Something similar could happen again: Mr. Yakini and hundreds of other Detroit residents are exploring ways to bring better food choices to the city. Their efforts have drawn greater local and state attention since a 2007 study discovered just how much the city’s lack of quality, full-service grocery stores endangers lives.

The study, commissioned by Chicago-based LaSalle Bank Corporation, found that more than half of the city’s residents live in areas where fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are essentially unavailable. The study found that people in those areas are more likely to suffer or die prematurely from diet-related diseases.

City and state economic development leaders add that it’s difficult to attract new residents to Detroit if the city does not offer such basics.

Now the city’s economic development arm, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, is working on ways to increase fresh-food and quality-grocery choices in the city, including a potential multi-million dollar fund to stimulate investment.

“The attraction of new grocery stores and the improvement and expansion of existing stores is an important part of our retail strategy,” said Olga Savic Stella, vice president for business development at that agency. “Quality grocery stores anchor quality shopping districts.”

A model they’re looking at is the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which in the last few years has loaned or granted $42 million to finance 58 projects, half in urban neighborhoods and half in small towns across the state.

Because the stores are independent and locally owned, the initiative’s leaders believe the businesses are more likely to work with local food suppliers, especially area farmers. While there are no studies yet to confirm that theory, if independent retailers are flexible enough to set up in tight downtown areas, they may also be open to buying from local farmers.

Mr. Yakini and some of his friends involved in the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network will be around if they do. The network’s three-acre “D-Town” urban farm on the western edge of Rouge Park is already selling food at farmers markets and to restaurants.

Maybe produce trucks are next.

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