When we first heard Whole Foods was coming to Detroit, there were many concerns: How would it add value to the community? Would it actually serve the majority of people in the city, or just the gentrifying force that calls the Cass Corridor “Midtown”? Would it obliterate the smaller grocers in the neighborhood, including Goodwells and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe? Would it have a negative impact on Eastern Market, our vibrant local farmer’s market? And of course, would it increase local jobs?
Now, Whole Foods has opened in Detroit. And in spite of my intention to resist it until all of those questions were answered, I had to go check it out.
The first thing I noticed was the diversity of people working the checkout lines and holding it down in each department—it looked surprisingly like Detroit. There were more black people in the store than I have ever seen at a Whole Foods anywhere, which makes sense in majority black Detroit. I was pleased to hear the conversations that were happening between black people, about what gluten-free meant, recommending their favorite smoked salmons and raw cheeses, sharing the sense of food pride people get when being healthier together.
I knew that the differences I saw between this Whole Foods and others I’d seen could be attributed to local community members who engaged with Whole Foods in a year-long process. Whole Foods sent representatives to build relationship with the community once it was clear that they were definitely coming to Detroit. What eventually formed out of those conversations was a community advisory group, which has since grown into a body called Equitable Detroit, doing ongoing accountability work with Whole Foods with an eye toward other corporate entities looking at the city for economic opportunity.
I interviewed three organizers about their experience collaborating with Whole Foods: Linda Campbell of Building Movement, Gloria Rivera of Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, and Mary Lou Malone of MOSES. All are members of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. While there is still work to be done, the activists agreed that what they experienced could be applied to other Whole Foods in other cities and to other entities looking to develop responsibly in Detroit.
Linda Campbell: It’s been a good process. I think it’s been a learning process for those of us around the table who have been engaged. The question was how to best represent the concerns of the community with the development of this, and keep it in the frame of development. A lot of folks feel like, Oh it’s a grocery store, it will bring opportunities and diversity, but at the root of it is how decisions are made about development in Detroit and about how to spend resources. That has been a learning process for us.
Gloria Rivera: We’re really addressing systems, in this case the system around development. Which of course bumps up against other systems—housing, equity. That adds to the complexity, and also adds to creating better, more thought through processes for development. And I mean better than the more silo focused approach—it’s not one issue, it’s a system.
Mary Lou Malone: It’s been a learning process for Whole Foods too, not just for us. A group with this kind of relationship with Whole Foods is unique in the country.
LC: To their credit, we have enjoyed a level of access—if we ask for a meeting with [co-CEO] Walter Robb they will make it happen. They are open. Having that kind of accessibility has helped enlighten the process and the learning on our side, But it’s not without tensions.
AMB: I want to hear about those, but first, what were some of the successes?
LC: The local hires. When we started meeting with them they were talking 35 new local jobs, they are up to I think 110, and 70% of those are Detroiters. I think they doubled the number of new local jobs [they were intending to fill].
GR: Also, attending to the local products. They helped people to improve their products so they had an opportunity to be marketed there…and other places.
LC: And I thought they did a really great job around outreach. They have a standard application process through computers, and they adapted that when we expressed concern that it might not be accessible.
GR: Another piece is the artistic/cultural piece—the murals, the inclusion of various local artists. It really became an opportunity.
LC: And they lift up the nutrition education work they do in neighborhoods, a lot with faith-based groups. From what I’ve seen and heard, the groups really enjoyed it. Whole Foods worked with whole congregations to educate and make commitments around more nutritious eating.
MLM: They also organized nine churches to apply for funds from the Whole Foods grants, and the churches got those.
LC: Our work included connecting them up to the emergency food pantries, like Brightmoor, Storehouse of Hope. Storehouse got a grant which allowed them to purchase fresh produce from a local grower. Our whole thing has been to remind Whole Foods where they are, in an African American city with high levels of poverty. We want them to not escape between the walls of Midtown, but to be more relevant in the greater community. Our question has always been: how do Detroiters across the city benefit from Whole Foods market. That is the question we are measuring against.
AMB: What are some of the things you are still hoping for? Ban the Box [an effort to eliminate the job application standard that makes people identify themselves as formerly incarcerated]?
LC: We raised the issue of Ban the Box with them, and they said felony conviction has no impact on whether they hire or not.
GR: We did ask them to take the question around felony conviction off the application but they did not.
MLM: It keeps people from applying.
LC: The other piece is wages; we want jobs, wages and benefits that can support a family. They say they pay above industry rate, we were pushing for a living wage, and we want jobs that lift families out of poverty. If you are getting up going to work every day we want wages that sustain your family. They fell short on those numbers.
GR: I would have also loved to see a lot more green construction and paying attention to the effects of construction, like what is released into the air. They are conscious in the food, but I don’t know about their consciousness in the construction.
MLM: It would have been great to see LEED certification.
LC: One of our hopes is that our experience with Whole Foods, and the lessons we have learned, can be shared in the community.
AMB: That speaks to my next question. Is this a model or process you would recommend to other cities or communities?
GR: We are developing a toolkit which can be used by anybody, meaning a local neighborhood organization that wants to deal with a new grocery store or some other developer: it doesn’t even have to be about food. It is a step-by-step process that helps people to get organized and move forward. Our idea is to print some copies of the toolkit, distribute them through relationships, and have it on our website. Also, we hope that those who use it can improve the toolkit as more is learned.
LC: We know this falls short of a negotiated community benefits agreement (CBA). That wasn’t possible by the time we engaged. But it is another strategy for engaging.
GR: We engaged the corporation. In my experience, in Detroit, I’ve never seen this done.
MLM: I definitely plan to use the model proactively.
GR: We had a vision of justice, and that is what kept opening doors, visions, challenging us. We were very faithful to the vision. That taught us a lot, but it was enjoyable. It was challenging, but not adversarial. The relationship—there were moments that were hard, but it was not a fight, not a war. You don’t compromise your principles, but you keep at it, keep engaging around the principles.
AMB: Would you say that in some ways that this is an emergent strategy, iterative, adaptive, and focused on relationships?
LC: We were very intentional about trying to create opportunities for Whole Foods to shift their practice. We came into the process very late—they had already been meeting and talking with folks for two years. Who knows what it would have looked like if we had been there from the beginning. When we arrived it was clear there wouldn’t be a CBA, but we could have impact.
GR: Also, no one person could take credit for it; it was truly a coalition effort.
LC: And it should be noted this work is not funded.
GR: I would call it gift economy—our effort, our time, the reputation of our organizations, gifting Detroiters.
LC: Also the majority of the people around the table, we live in the city, we are constituents. Part of the requirement to be at the table is that you have to be part of a community, a group, and that you are taking this back to the community. We came to the table as stakeholders because we are Detroiters, part of the community.
AMB: That’s beautiful, and powerful. And what is the focus of Equitable Detroit now?
LC: Our next work is collecting data and looking at the impact over time on nearby merchants, small local growers, and who is accessing the store.