5 Takeaways On How The Rise Of Supermarkets Left Out Black America

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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Supermarkets are historically reluctant to expand in Black neighborhoods. Supermarket redlining: 5 takeaways on how the rise of supermarkets left out Black America. Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Supermarket chains have been historically reluctant to expand in neighborhoods where Black people live. It’s known as supermarket redlining and it persists today, in part because of stereotypes that Black communities are poor and crime-ridden, according to a report by CNN Business. 

Sixty-plus years of white flight to the suburbs hurt Black communities in urban areas, making it harder and more expensive for many Black people to access a supermarket than for most white people, according to food policy advocates, historians and urban studies experts.

For years, Detroit did not have a major supermarket chain in the city, where 78 percent of the 700,000 residents are Black. Today, there are just three major supermarkets in the city — two regional Meijer chain stores and a Whole Foods, which opened in 2013.

Here are 5 takeaways on how the rise of supermarkets left out Black America, from CNN.

How supermarkets became a suburban thing

Supermarkets were created with suburban residents in mind, according to Jerry Shannon, an assistant geography professor at the University of Georgia.

When frightened white residents fled civil rights protests in cities around the U.S. in the 1960s, they settled in the suburbs. Big-box chains saw an opportunity. Grocery stores operate on thin profit margins — normally in the range of 1 percent-to-2 percent, CNN reported. Companies saw a chance for bigger profits in the largely white suburbs, said Joshua Davis, a historian at the University of Baltimore and author of “From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs.”

Supermarket chains moved away from the cities to the suburbs or built bigger stores that held more food than they could before. Land was cheap and parking lots, big in the suburbs. “Supermarkets became the most common source for grocery shopping during a time of rapid suburbanization, and their car-dependent large footprint format is designed for suburban sprawl,” Shannon said.

Detroit has grocer flight

Most of Detroit relies on about 70 independent grocery stores, according to Alex Hill, an adjunct professor in Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies and director of the Detroit Food Map Initiative.

There are no Black-owned grocery stores in Detroit.

“Locally, we’ve seen grocer flight,” Hill said. “You can find Kroger stores in a ring around the city, but none inside the border of Detroit.”

In two neighboring white counties, it’s a different scenario. Macomb County had 27 major supermarkets and Washtenaw County had eight, according to Hill.

“Big chains don’t see Detroit as a place where they can make money,” said Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council. “The perception is that Detroit is a big pit of poverty and Black people will steal you blind and try to get things for a nickel.”

Racial disparities in supermarket access

In the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, about 17.7 percent of predominately Black neighborhoods have limited access to supermarkets, compared to 7.6 percent of mostly white neighborhoods, according to an analysis done for CNN Business by the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit community development organization.

The racial disparities persist across income lines, according to the analysis, which combined 2016 supermarket location and 2016 Census data, CNN reported. Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing also found that predominantly Black neighborhoods have less access to grocery stores: “At equal levels of poverty, Black census tracts had the fewest supermarkets (and) white tracts had the most,” Hopkins researchers found in a 2014 analysis of food retailer and census data.

How supermarkets avoid Black neighborhoods

Supermarkets intentionally avoid Black neighborhoods.

“We saw supermarket redlining in Black neighborhoods,” said Debarchana Ghosh, an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut department of geography. Chain supermarkets either chose not to open in neighborhoods with high Black populations, closed down, or moved to the suburbs, she said.

As a member of the Philadelphia city council, Michael Nutter said he spent years trying to bring a grocery store to a mostly Black area of Philadelphia by offering tax incentives. ShopRite eventually agreed to come in 2007.

“We went to virtually every national grocery retailer in our region,” said Nutter, who was the mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 to 2016. “White people don’t think Black people spend money, and they weren’t willing to invest in predominately Black neighborhoods.”

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In fact, Black consumers spend more than $1 trillion a year, according to a Nielsen report on Black buying power. It’s a “tremendously reliable level of spending,” NewsOne reported.

“At 47.8 million strong and a buying power that’s on par with many countries’ gross domestic products, African Americans continue to outpace spending nationally,” said Cheryl Grace, Nielsen’s senior vice president of community alliances and consumer engagement.

Supermarkets do demographic racial profiling

In the 1980s, the grocery industry consolidated and top chains merged. Surviving chains closed overlapping locations, resulting in fewer stores in cities. To this day, supermarket chains are reluctant to expand in Black neighborhoods, CNN reported. That’s partly because of stereotypes of Black communities as poor and crime-ridden, some local leaders claim.

Supermarkets work closely with elected officials, community leaders and other groups to help bring grocery stores to neighborhoods, said Heather Garlich, spokeswoman for FMI, a trade group for the food retail industry.

“Market, economic and demographic factors influence a company’s decision to establish a store,” Garlich said in a statement. “Grocery stores require an adequate customer base and economic support to remain viable; real estate costs and availability are significant factors to determine where and how a store is built.”

Supermarket chains “have a demographic location profile that prioritizes communities that are not low income and not African American,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that opposes concentrated economic power in communities. “The outcome has a racial bias.”