Great Grocer Project aims to support independent grocers, healthy food options in Detroit
A new effort aims to strengthen ties between Detroiters and independent grocery stores while promoting access to healthy food in the city.
The Great Grocer Project, a partnership between Wayne State University, the Detroit Food Policy Council and members of the Detroit Grocery Coalition, was unveiled Thursday. According to a Wayne State press release, the community-based program will also help promote economic vitality in the Detroit neighborhoods.
“We’re working on this project to change the image of grocery stores in Detroit. That image used to be terrible,” said Charles Walker, a Detroit-based retail specialist for the Fair Food Network. “There have been a lot of spills where people shop outside of the city of Detroit. I think the stores are a lot better now. We’re working hard to change the narrative.”
In 2018, a group of Wayne State Fellows and employees conducted reviews of more than 70 independent grocers in Detroit, excluding chains like Meijer, Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, and Aldi. Customer surveys and interviews with 52 grocery store managers and owners were also taken into account. Of these stores, 25 received the highest ratings for healthy food availability and quality, pricing, customer service and safety, and community involvement.
The Great Grocer Project will provide funds to businesses to make them better known in the communities in which they operate, as well as money for upgrades, according to Wayne State Assistant Professor Rachael Dombrowski.
“We pride ourselves that all of these stores are doing a great job promoting the availability and affordability of healthy food in stores across the city,” said Dombrowski.
WSU received a USD 375,000 grant from the USDA in September to finance the project, with the money spread over three years. The funds flow into grants for staff and data entry in stores. According to Dombrowski, there is also money for community organizations to promote the business. Improvements in some stores include purchasing shelves and other equipment to build a “healthy food” area and make existing product areas more attractive.
Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council, said the idea originally came up during a meeting in 2012 with the aim of getting grocers and local residents to better communicate with each other. The Food Policy Council received a one-time award of $ 50,000 from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the project, which established a pilot program and funded fellows. Some funds will go towards incentives for participating stores and helping grocers in a variety of areas, Bynum said.
Parkway Foods, with three locations in Detroit, is one of the grocers rated high enough to be included on the project. Owner Vincent Nona opened a 47,000-square-foot facility on Jefferson Avenue, east of the city, in 2014 and took over a Farmer Jack store that closed in 2007.
Nona is happy to be part of the program. He said his relationship with the community where his latest business is operated is good. He said customers had announced their appreciation for Parkway Foods early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the need for items at Nona’s locations, including disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and various groceries that they couldn’t find at larger retailers.
“The church loves us and we love them,” said Nona. “We’re trying our best to give people what they need. During COVID, people were trying to save every dollar they could. So they could get fresh, healthy groceries from our stores – that was huge. We keep prices down, have good sales, and give people what they want. “
Shirley Burch, Corporate Representative for Belmont Shopping Center in Detroit in partnership with Imperial Supermarkets, believes the program can help dispel some myths about the city’s lack of healthy options.
“We have customers coming from Port Huron to our location in Eight Mile and Dequindre. People travel far into Detroit to get groceries they can’t get where they live,” said Burch, who also serves as police commissioner in serves District 3.
“(Imperial) has a variety of locations that the person who still likes going to a neighborhood store can get to. They are more convenient and easy to walk to. You get to meet the people who are in the stores in The neighborhood work. We have a lot of block clubs that have functions to support a lot of different things. The managers of these community stores know who the heads of these organizations are and the store provides support. There is no bureaucracy on how to go through at larger retailers. They’re all like family. “
Detroit-based Juan Escareño, director of government relations and public relations for the Midwest Independent Retailers Association, said the program was a great way to recognize some of Detroit’s big retailers.
“I’m based in Detroit and I also shop in Detroit. I see some of the challenges people face when shopping in Detroit,” said Escareño. “Hopefully this program will encourage other grocers to improve their game.”