Why Are There So Few Black-Owned Grocery Stores?

Tom Perkins, Civil Eats, January 18, 2018

{snip} No organizations track the number, but sources familiar with the situation and some of the remaining grocers suggest that fewer than 10 Black-owned supermarkets remain across the entire country. And the number continues to shrink: In the past two years alone, Sterling Farms in New Orleans, Apples and Oranges in Baltimore, and several branches of Calhoun’s in Alabama have all gone out of business.

This is problematic because strong anchor businesses like grocery stores can serve as the center of neighborhood economies, recirculating local revenues through wages and nearby businesses. They can also be neighborhood hubs, where people go to buy good food as well as employment centers and sources of community pride. But where there are no grocery stores, or where they’re not enmeshed in the fabric of the community, problems arise: Grocery store ownership directly ties to larger struggles and themes like economic stability, self-determination, power, control, and racial and class stratification, says Malik Yakini.

Yakini is the director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, an organization that builds self-reliance, food security, and justice in Detroit’s Black community. When a neighborhood loses a local grocery store, he says, the African-American community essentially becomes what he describes as a “domestic colony.”

“[Black neighborhoods] are seen as a place for the more dominant economy to sell things,” Yakini says. “We’re more interested in building community, self-determination, and self-reliance. We’re interested in being more than consumers of goods that others bring to sell, and often goods that are inferior to what’s sold in the white community.

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Large chains like Walmart capitalize on this phenomenon. The company was one of three to partner with former First Lady Michelle Obama on a controversial plan to build 1,500 grocery stores in food deserts; fewer than half of those stores were ever built or renovated, and many of them were shuttered within the first five years.

In addition to building (and then closing) stores in underserved communities, Walmart has also been known to bus city residents out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs to do their shopping under one roof—an attractive option for a population that’s not totally mobile in a sprawling city like Detroit.

Also working in the large chains’ favor is the fact that many stores in Black neighborhoods like Chicago’s south side or Detroit’s east side are dirty, the quality of their food is often lower, and there’s a well-documented pattern of distributors supplying expired or nearly expired food. Additionally, local shoppers often say that management can be disrespectful and staff often don’t live nearby.

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In Chicago, food activist Sheelah Muhammed’s father ran a Nation of Islam grocery store that opened in the mid-20th century and partnered with Black producers to set up businesses to supply its food. But, she says, that fell apart in the century’s final decades as society integrated and people gravitated toward large, white-owned chains in a way that earlier generations didn’t.

“When you’re coming out of slavery, Jim Crow, and having to do for yourself, having to work within your own community after being segregated—there are some positives to that. Not that I want to go back to it,” Muhammed says. “But having to do for yourself and working within your community—we should go back to that.”

And common arguments that Blacks hear from the right and Libertarian whites is, “Black people should just go and open grocery stores” or some variation of the “bootstraps” cliche. But that ignores the difficulty Black people often have in obtaining capital or experience. Malik Yakini claims that Black people in Detroit are often shut out of management positions at stores run by those from outside their community, so they don’t have the experience necessary to successfully run a supermarket or obtain capital.

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Ultimately, it’s all connected: the wealth extraction, the national chains, the rotten food, the redlining, and the lack of ownership. And when all the pieces are assembled, a clear picture of an economic system that’s stacked against African-Americans begins to emerge. It’s the forces of racial and class stratification at work, Cooper says, which aren’t unique to the grocery industry.

“It’s based on inferior positionality of Black people,” she says. “If we buy into the idea that every owner is white and that’s not a problem, and that Black people have no other position but to be an empty consumer, then that’s perpetuating white supremacy, and that’s a grave injustice.”

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Despite the obstacles and competition they face, there are examples of locally owned grocery stores thriving in Detroit and elsewhere. The Honey Bee Market, centrally located in the predominantly Mexican stretch of Southwest Detroit, is co-owned by a Mexican woman. It’s a clean mom-and-pop shop that provides healthy foods, fresh produce, and employs neighborhood residents in its management.

The Grocery Outlet in Compton, California, where Kia Patterson, a Black woman, is an independent operator, is another good example. Though the store is part of a chain, Patterson grew up in Compton, lives nearby in Long Beach, and talks about the need for grocery stores to support the community.

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But perhaps the best solutions exist outside the traditional grocery store model. Bodegas and smaller stores, which increasingly provide more produce and meats, require far less capital to start than traditional supermarkets. In Chicago, where wide swaths of real estate are considered food deserts, Cooper, Muhammed, and two other partners launched a mobile grocery store called Fresh Moves. The mobile model provided them flexibility while allowing them to form partnerships that helped reach more people, Muhammed said.

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As traditional food systems fail African-Americans (not to mention low-income communities and other communities of all colors), effective alternative forms of ownership, like the Southwest Georgia Project food hub, look increasingly appealing, Cooper says. The Georgia nonprofit owns 1,600 acres of land on which Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers grow food to meet regional demand.

“Private ownership will not free us, [will] not get us equity, so we have to think about how class inequality is reproduced and challenge that,” Cooper says.

Examples of alternatives are sprouting up around the country. In Minneapolis, the long-standing Seward Co-Op last year opened a new supermarket in the minority-majority Bryant neighborhood, and went to great lengths to let the neighborhood’s residents shape the new market.

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