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Intersections of race and class: The food divide in Grand Rapids' southeast community

Steven McGhee, resident of the SE community

McGhee's property where he hopes to develop a farmers' market for the SE community of GR

What is your income? Where do you live? What color is your skin? These questions shouldn't matter when it comes to getting food. But they do, and residents and organizers in southeast Grand Rapids are working to change this by providing equitable access to affordable and healthy food for everyone.
For residents in the southeast community of Grand Rapids, the dividing line between access to healthy and affordable food intersects the boundaries of class, income and race.

Racism and classism, and the policies that have stemmed from these, have, in Grand Rapids and across the United States, made accessing healthy and affordable food overwhelmingly difficult for people of color and individuals who are earning lower incomes. There is little chance to purchase land to grow your own food when banks won’t give you a loan (which they repeatedly don’t for people of color). There are far fewer grocery stores in communities of color (a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found just 8 percent of African Americans live within one mile of a grocery store, compared to 31 percent of whites).  And if you want to open up your own grocery store? The banks, again, are less likely to approve a loan if you’re black or Latinx.  When racism prevents you from earning more or finding a job altogether, it’s difficult to afford transportation to the grocery store, or to afford groceries altogether.

For Grand Rapids’ southeast community, where 81.2 percent of residents are people of color and 67.8 percent live below 150 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,030 for a family of two), this translates to being forced to endlessly wade through a sea of inequity, in which people can greatly struggle to access and afford their groceries. Despite these daunting disparities, residents haven’t given up: in fact, they’ve done the opposite. In the face of racism and classism, residents and other food justice advocates are working to overturn deeply embedded and oppressive food systems.

Empowerment in agriculture

Teaching residents to plant hearty potatoes in their backyard, or dreaming up the blueprints for a community farmers market are some of the ways residents and grassroots organizers are tackling food insecurity in the area.

For Levi Gardner, executive director of Urban Roots, access to affordable and healthy food is related to socioeconomic status.  Urban Roots provides opportunities for residents of the Madison Square community to learn to grow and harvest their own food in hopes of helping every member of the neighborhood have access to organic and local food at little cost.

“It is a socioeconomic question of mobility and transportation,” states Gardner.

Levi Gardner, executive director of Urban RootsWhether a family of color on the southeast side of Grand Rapids will be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for the week, when Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country, is a hard reality to swallow for social justice-minded farmers like Gardner.

Michigan’s agricultural diversity is second only to California, and the state produces more than 300 commodities, including cherries, blueberries, dry beans, cucumbers, and much more, the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development notes. Billions of dollars of Michigan foods are exported to places like Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, China, and elsewhere.

And yet, despite the massive agricultural economy (the state’s food and agriculture industry contributes about $101.2 billion to the state’s economy and accounts for about 22 percent of Michigan’s employment), hunger and food insecurity is pervasive.

According to Access of West Michigan, a group that works to eliminate hunger and poverty in the community, more than 20 percent of children in Kent County are considered to be food insecure — meaning they don’t always know from where their next meal will come, nor do they have enough access to healthy food. In West Michigan, food insecurity affects one in eight people, and that number grows when looking solely at the region’s children. One in five children is food insecure in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, according to Feeding America West Michigan.

In other words: something in our food system is broken, Gardner and countless other food justice advocates stress. We produce and produce, but some of us aren’t eating. And many of us who aren’t eating are people of color and low-income.

Changing a system that fails to appropriately provide healthy and nutritious food for the most marginalized, for Gardner, means empowering the Madison Square residents to grow their own food.  Alongside the sprouting vegetables lining the Urban Roots property, residents of this community are learning they too deserve access to healthy and affordable food.  

Gardner is finding solutions to a broken food system by providing residents with food options.

Food options many of them do not have access to. The residents living within the boundaries of Madison Avenue, U.S. 131, Wealthy Street, and Cottage Grove are faced with limited transportation, or little time between job and family responsibilities, to get to the grocery store. And they are relying on a single grocery store to meet their basic food needs. Duthler’s Family Foods, located on the corner of Hall Street and Madison Avenue, is the only grocery store in an area home to over 4,400 residents, according to U.S. Census data. Although a number of corner and liquor stores are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, the fruits, vegetable, meat, and dairy options available in these establishments is limited and more costly than at Duthler’s Family Foods.

Food apartheid

The term apartheid stems from the institutionalized racial segregation prohibiting  black or mixed race South Africans from accessing the same employment opportunities, housing, education, public facilities, or public events as their white counterparts during the time period from 1948 to 1991. For Lisa Oliver King, executive director of Our Kitchen Table--a grassroots, nonprofit organization that empowers the Grand Rapids community to improve their health and environment through education, community organizing and advocacy--the apartheid lived by South Africans is not far from the reality lived by people of color in the United States. When referencing food apartheid, King defines this as “the intentional, systemic marketing and distribution of profitable, nutrient-poor, disease-causing foods to income-challenged neighborhoods, mainly communities of color.”

Lisa Oliver King, executive director of Our Kitchen Table


The high rates of heart disease and diabetes among black residents in Kent County, many of whom reside in the southeast community of Grand Rapids, King says, is directly related to the lack of healthy food available in the neighborhood's retail locations, the proximity and perceived ease and cheapness of junk and convenience foods, and lack of transportation to food establishments carrying healthy and affordable food options.

“Diabetes and cardiovascular disease is not an African American problem, but a diet related problem,” explains King.

According to King, an availability of more grocery stores  is not the answer to food insecurity, but addressing the system made up of political, historical and corporate influences limiting the availability of healthy food in certain neighborhoods.

“If a food system’s purpose is to make nourishing foods available to all in an equitable manner, then our current system is broken,” states King.

In other words, King says, the food system in the United States has evolved from a place of colonial conquest, where slave labor was exploited for agricultural purposes to its current corporate structure that's focused on profit and not the health of its consumers.

Mitigating food insecurity in Grand Rapids, for King, means taking steps away from the charitable food assistance model. The charitable food model seeks to provide emergency food relief through food banks and food pantries. Although the model helps provide families who are consistently experiencing hunger gain immediate relief by having access to other food options, these do not empower the individual to gain tools, awareness or education to address the food insecurity they may be facing, explains King.

Instead, King suggests, a model that focuses on creating city ordinances that make it easy for residents to compost, keep a couple of chickens and grow food gardens can help shape a more long term model that systemically addresses hunger and food insecurity.

By taking a resident-led approach, King is mobilizing communities of color in the southeast side to address food and environmental health disparities. At Our Kitchen Table, residents can attend gardening classes and cooking classes focused on healthy eating, as well as purchase bulk whole foods at reduced costs.

A farmers' market: a sustainable solution to hunger insecurity 


Steven McGhee, who grew up in the southeast side of Grand Rapids and still resides in the area, remembers when he was a kid  in the late 60s to early 70s and the options for fruits and vegetables were “all over the neighborhood.” Imagining the fresh fruit stands previously at the corner of Boston and Kalamazoo to peach and pear trees that lined the neighborhood’s blocks, McGhee could not have imagined these would disappear one by one from the southeast community.

“We have some corner stores here and there, but there isn’t anything that much as far as fresh fruits and vegetables. The closest thing to fresh fruits and vegetables is Duthler’s,” says McGhee, referring to the only grocery store in the area.

McGhee at his property on Hall Street, where he hopes to develop a farmers' market for the community.
These days, McGhee dreams of developing the property he owns on Hall Street into a community farmers' market. He imagines a market offering the residents of the southeast community the opportunity to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, attend community canning classes, and learn ways to cook healthy meals. To get a better idea of what the residents in the neighborhood want, McGhee took it upon himself and went door to door to survey 350 southeast residences.

“I asked them where they bought their fruits and vegetables, what kinds of vegetables they would like to have access to, and if they would shop at a farmers market,” says McGhee.

For the last two years, McGhee has worked with residents of the neighborhood; Seeds of Promise, a southeast based community organization; and architects to actualize the plans for a year-round farmer’s market in the southeast community. Upon presenting his findings and preliminary drawings of the building for the farmer’s market to city officials, McGhee was asked to provide official blueprints and to address the drainage system of the property. However, he cannot currently meet these requirements because he does not have the financial means to fulfill them, causing him to put the project on pause for the time being.

“We have been working to meet the city’s requirements for the development of the project, all of which takes a lot of time and money,” says McGhee.

By providing the infrastructure for a farmers’ market, McGhee hopes to be able to collaborate with the Southeast Area Farmers’ Market, a project managed by Our Kitchen Table, and co-sponsored by the Kent County Health Department and Greater Grand Rapids Food System Council, and the Food Diversity Project. This farmers’ market sells fruits and vegetables to the community every Saturday from the months of July to November at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Customers have the opportunity to use their Bridge Card, SNAP benefits, Double Up Food Bucks, and WIC to cover the costs.

McGhee, Gardner and King believe the answer to food insecurity lies in economic opportunity and empowerment. For McGhee, showing up in his community means developing his land into a farmers’ market to help provide the neighborhood with consistent options for healthy and affordable produce. For Gardner, the opportunity for community empowerment can be found in providing residents the opportunity to harvest their own locally grown food. Enacting change for King signifies working to build an alternative to the current food system, a system transcending the model of relieving hunger with a focus on surpassing the charitable food model.

Healthy food should be something that can be equitably accessed by every single person in Grand Rapids, the three advocates stress.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This is our final feature of our On The Ground GR Southeast Community series. For the past three months, our series has focused on highlighting and celebrating the communities found touching the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131, and Madison Square.

We are grateful to all the southeast residents, community advocates, and organizations, including our partner organization, Seeds of Promise, for connecting us, sharing your stories, and providing us the space to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.

Photography by Dreams by Bella.
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