Forget Urban Farms. We Need a Wal-Mart Wal-Marts in Cities Mean Better Food

Plans for urban farms in Detroit get a lot press. But the author argues that they aren't going to come close to fixing the city's food desert.

Residents of Detroit are digging up vacant lots in their emptying city and turning them into urban farms. These little plots are an important source for produce for Detroiters for one big reason: there aren’t many other sources.

Detroit lost its last chain grocery store three years ago when the last two Farmer Jack’s groceries closed. This seems incredible—a city of nearly 1 million people without a supermarket—but it’s true. No A&P. No Meijer’s. Not even a Wal-Mart. Any Detroiters who want fresh store-bought fruits and vegetables or wrapped meats have to get in their car and drive to the suburbs. That is, if they have a car.

In this food desert, some Detroiters have taken to growing their own produce. This has received a great deal of good press from advocates of local food movements, opponents of factory farming, back-to-the-land activists and others who see urban and small-scale farming as the future of American agriculture.

In fact, it’s anything but. And we should hope it’s anything but.

In Detroit and other cities where these urban farms fill a need, urban farms are nothing less than a symptom of civic catastrophe, a desperate last measure for people trapped in destitute neighborhoods that have become food deserts—places without decent grocery stores, with no local food available except for chips and soda at a convenience shop on the corner.

Most of these people are the descendants of the Southerners who came north to work in the great factories of Detroit and other Northern cities and, not incidentally, to escape share-cropping down South. Most were stranded when those factories collapsed. They have room to farm because fully half the people in the city have moved out.

Yes, these urban plots do grow fresh food. Yes, they provide vegetables to people with no other access to vegetables. Yes, they’re definitely better than the alternative, which is nothing.

But to join the foodie chorus in praise of this trend is to misunderstand the whole nature and direction of farming in this country. There are two parallel trends. One is more big farms, of 2,000 acres or more, a trend that has been going on for more than a century. The other is more very small farms, 50 acres or less, serving farmers’ markets or specialty shoppers and chefs. (Traditional family farms, the ones in the middle, are vanishing.)

There’s nothing wrong with this growth in small farming, so far as it goes: even foodies deserve to eat well. But these niche farms are just that—a niche. With their low yields, they can’t possible meet global demand. And they’re off limits to all but urbanites who can afford their higher prices and who have the time to sort through the piles haricots verts and heirloom tomatoes and then find recipes for them. There’s no place in this rarified universe for average people working long hours to afford the lower prices at the local supermarket.

And as I noted, residents of Detroit don’t even have that. Many aren’t working at all, which is why they’re stuck in those food deserts. Even if they have jobs, it’s not possible for them to eat decently by shopping locally.

Those new urban plots are a palliative but no cure. So long as their apologists are allowed to put a positive spin on them, we’ll never come close to a solution.

The real solution, of course, is jobs. A vibrant economy produces good housing, good health, and good nutrition for the people who live within it. A broken economy guarantees slums, illness, and malnutrition. As long as Detroit remains an economic wasteland, its food problems cannot be solved.

But short of that, some things can be done. Big box stores—especially Wal-Mart—are beginning to locate in northern cities, if not in the inner citiy neighborhoods. Because of its savage personnel policies, Wal-Mart faces particular opposition from local politicians. But what if Wal-Mart was allowed to set up a super-store in cities like Detroit—but only if it established smaller groceries, with fresh fruit and vegetables, in the city’s food deserts? Empty stores, most of them long off the tax rolls, pock these neighborhoods. The city could give the stores to Wal-Mart rent-free—but only if it committed to staying for, say, 10 years and to running nutrition classes for local residents.

Wal-Mart is the store that everyone loves to hate, too often for good reason. But if anyone has a better idea, let’s hear it. Raising your own rutabagas in vacant lots isn’t it.

Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.

Photograph by Peter Smith.

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