When Raphael Wright thought about what he could do to build back his community in Detroit, he realized that food sovereignty, or the ability for a community to control the food it consumes, is often the bedrock of a healthy neighborhood and economy.
But in Detroit, where 78 percent of the population is Black, there hasn’t been a Black-owned grocery store since 2014. What’s more, 39 percent of Detroit households face food insecurity, a number only exacerbated by the pandemic.
“In the 1960s we had up to 20 Black-owned grocery stores,” said Wright. “By 2010 there were two left, and in 2014 the last one closed.”
Charles Walker, a former Detroit grocery store owner and manager of the healthy food incentive program Double Up Food Bucks, said the lack of Black-owned stores can be attributed in part to lack of opportunities given to Black workers.
“It matters who is getting experience,” Walker said. “Detroiters may become a cashier, or a stock clerk, but won’t always get to learn how to work with vendors or pay the bills. If you don’t get leadership opportunities, you kind of plateau.”
Former Black-owned stores were often pushed out of the market by large grocery chains and fast food franchises, Wright said. Additionally, an association of Chaldean-owned groceries were able to start the Detroit Independent Grocers association, allowing them to purchase products on a larger scale, and, in turn, sell them for less.
“So many healthy food anchors in the city have suffered,” Wright said. “People use the term ‘food desert’ a lot, but it’s not necessarily that there’s no food available. It’s that there’s no good food available.”
For Wright, it was clear there was a problem in need of solving, and his plans for Neighborhood Grocery, a 6,000 square foot grocery store in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, were born.
Wright, an established local entrepreneur, knew that in order for Neighborhood Grocery to survive the difficult market in Detroit, community buy-in would be essential. He devised a business model that would allow Detroiters to invest in the grocery’s build-out, and receive a portion of the grocery’s profits once the store broke even, creating a community commitment to the store’s success. The store also has a GoFundMe, which has raised over $60,000 through average donations of $75.
“I can partner with local Detroiters and we can actually build our own table,” Wright said. “We can look at other needs in the community that need to be met and build solutions ourselves.”
The model allows Wright to forego banks and large investment firms that are often hesitant to take on the low profit margins of grocery stores. And through weekly emails and monthly investor meetings, it gives his community a “front row seat” to the process of starting a business from the ground up.
“The crowd-funding angle came out of necessity originally, because grocery stores are not the sexiest investment for banks or large investors. But we’ve found this angle gives Detroiters access to redevelopment processes when they had previously been left out,” Wright said. “People can learn what it looks like to get a building up to code, what it looks like to make a business plan, do market studies and all the other components of financial literacy.”
Wright described the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood as “diverse and active” despite not having an immediate grocery store in the area, making it an ideal community for the project. But Wright doesn’t want Neighborhood Grocery to be a standalone project.
“This business model is built for replication, and I believe it’s the future. Banks have most of the power when it comes to making money available for projects, and for them it’s usually all about dollars and cents,” said Wright. “But there’s a new realm of possibility created when people just put a few dollars together and start putting in the work.”
A Fair Food Network study found Detroiters spend over $200 million on groceries in the suburbs, citing a lack of options in the city. More local options, Wright said, will help funnel money back into the communities that need it.
“That’s tax revenue leaving the city. The government is losing hundreds of millions of dollars that could go to virtually any policy or program, and then Detroiters suffer because those policies and programs aren’t present in the city.”
Winona Bynum, the Executive Director of the Detroit Food Policy Council agreed, saying that if Detroiters can meet their needs in the city, it will not only foster community, but economic growth, too.
“What it means is additional jobs for Detroiters,” said Bynum. “It means additional dollars circulating back into the community and hopefully, more investment into the city too. The way he’s bringing the store forth, I think the community will feel really connected to it.”
A study by the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation showed strong local economies are in many ways anchored by grocery stores, as grocery stores often draw new business. After Walker opened his grocery store in 2004, a Wendy’s and Family Dollar soon popped up nearby.
But Walker said that although the economic gains of opening more stores are clear, the community benefits shouldn’t be overlooked. Grocery stores aren’t just a source of jobs; they’re a source of stability and community, too. Think about recipes being shared along the aisles, or running into friends and inviting them over for dinner.
“You see people you went to high school with, church members, community organizations, maybe even government representatives,” said Walker.
It’s this community spirit that Wright says is propelling him forward with this project. Preparing for years of hard work, Wright said he knows that opening the grocery will not be immediately lucrative, but for him, profit isn’t the incentive.
“This project is all about rebuilding. It starts with food, but it doesn’t end with food. Once communities can feed themselves, it’s all up from there,” Wright said. “You know money is cool and all, but change is way better.”