The skeptics didn’t think a Whole Foods could ever work in Detroit. They also didn’t think a Whole Foods could deliver change to a city plagued by poverty, blight, crime and unemployment.
Yet in the 1 1/2 years since the market opened, the aisles have been packed. Some residents say that a store known for its high prices and pretentious food options has brought small but real change to Detroit, delivering jobs to residents and new food alternatives.
As plans for a Whole Foods in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in 2016 continue to develop, many are looking to Detroit for clues to how a store will affect the troubled South Side area and its residents.
Detroit and Englewood both struggle with many of the same social ills. About 40 percent of Detroit’s 688,701 residents live below the poverty line, according to 2013 U.S. Census data. In Englewood, the percentage of residents below the poverty line is just over 47 percent. Detroit did not have a chain grocery store for more than seven years and, like Englewood, it was long considered a food desert.
For Larry Austin, manager of the Detroit store, Whole Foods has given the city jobs it desperately needed. The store employs 190 people, Austin said. Nearly three-quarters of them are city residents, and most are African-American. Most are new to the company as well.
In return, residents have worked to make the store a success; he said many believe the store can fuel a neighborhood renaissance.
Austin loves to share the story of his personal journey: With a high school diploma and little work experience, he was hired as a shipping and receiving clerk in 1999. He rose through the ranks to manage his own stores, and now he is in charge of a crucial company experiment.
“I’ve been unemployed and didn’t know what I was going to do or going to be,” said Austin. “To me, that’s the gift Whole Foods gave to this community — jobs and the message to say ‘Hey, work hard, have a positive attitude, and you can go somewhere.’ These are jobs with growth.
“It’s a chance for people to have a real career and that’s exciting,” he added.
On a recent, frigid afternoon, the store vibed with activity. In the produce area, elderly women huddled around the piles of Michigan apples, and a man perused dog food in a nearby aisle. Customers, still wearing uniforms from their jobs, lined up along the sandwich counter waiting to order. In the dining area, a homeless man was helped to a seat and a sandwich by a store employee instead of being shooed away.
When Whole Foods settled here, it wasn’t just a symbolic gesture. Company officials hoped people, particularly minorities and lower-income residents, would want to eat better and reach that goal by shopping at the store. But not everyone was sure a grocery could spark a dramatic lifestyle change.
“First we say it’s a food desert,” said Akua Woolbright, a healthy eating educator who works for Whole Foods. “Then we say ‘well, the fresh foods are too expensive.’ What are we supposed to do? The Whole Foods here gives people an option. We all need options.”
Two years before the store opened, Woolbright hit the ground, hosting nutrition and health classes at churches, community centers and wherever she could reach residents.
Her goal was to get people to stay away from processed, sugary foods and rely more on plants and vegetables for nutrition and health. For all the work being done, Woolbright said it’s too early to measure if the health outcomes for Detroit’s poor and most vulnerable have been affected, or whether Whole Foods can change shopping habits in Englewood.
But she can say that her courses are packed with people hungry for in-depth information on using food to stay healthy.