The Food Retail Landscape in Michigan


Food retail stores have the potential to play an important role in the economy of Michigan by providing jobs to local residents, sourcing from area farms, and providing fresh, affordable food to residents struggling with food insecurity. Unfortunately, food retail consolidation nationally has helped enrich large companies instead of recirculating those dollars throughout local communities.

In order to begin to assess the food retail landscape in Michigan, the FAIM Project team collected lists of food outlets from various state and federal agencies. The FAIM Project team then categorized each store to generate a picture of the kinds of stores that exist across the state. Of the 14,659 stores categorized, 67% (9,826) were authorized to accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Here is how they break down:

Studies of food access have used inconsistent retail store definitions and in doing so have created contentious discussion regarding the effects of food retail environments on health and well-being. As an example, the images below use different data, at different scales and different points in time. The resulting maps have a variety of implications for how we broadly understand the food environments we exist in, their abundance or scarcity.

The two maps on the right were made using data from ReferenceUSA, a database created and maintained by a private vendor [i]. ReferenceUSA reports results from a telephone survey conducted by the vendor and includes records for individual businesses nationwide. Our initial database included 44,897 businesses within the food system that had 333 different primary industry classification codes assigned to them. Even when this initial sample was further refined to just 23 primary industry classification codes, the large number of retailer categories makes it difficult to decipher a spatial pattern among the various food businesses.

The following maps depict a more limited sample of stores, using only those that are SNAP authorized. In the first, we can see that between 2007 and 2015, there was an increase in the number of SNAP authorized stores across the state. Yet it isn’t until we drill down to the county level (second map on the right) and look at two specific store sub-types, grocery and convenience, that we are able to see not only an increase in SNAP authorized stores between 2005 and 2015, but also that a majority of newly authorized SNAP retailers in Washtenaw county were convenience stores–in 2005 there were 32 SNAP-authorized convenience stores and 12 grocery stores; by 2015 there were 120 SNAP-authorized convenience stores and 19 grocery stores.

Early food access literature — Findings, assumptions, & implications

The maps above are emblematic of early studies of food access that considered the spatial distribution of food retailers [ii, iii] finding that:

–  Disadvantaged and predominantly racial/ethnic minority inner-city neighborhoods tended to have fewer supermarkets and more convenience stores;
–  As a result, spatial access to healthful food sources such as retail supermarkets was deemed low or nonexistent;
–  This restricted access made individuals more dependent on smaller convenience stores;
–  And that even when affordable, nourishing food sources were present, they were found to be of poorer quality [iv].

While critical to demonstrating spatial inequalities, these studies often assumed that: area residents simply shopped at the store closest to their home; that the built environment determines peoples’ eating and exercise behaviors; and that peoples’ eating and exercise behaviors determine obesity [v]. Additionally, early food access studies also failed to describe, the “foodways”, or the cultural and social practices of low income individuals that affect food consumption, including how and what communities eat, where and how they shop, and what motivates their food preferences [vi].

Through interviews with individuals living in so-called food deserts, researchers found that they had significant knowledge about healthy food, understood food and eating as a cultural practice, and would often travel far distances for choice, affordability, and quality. Their data also revealed that cost, not lack of knowledge or physical distance, was the primary barrier to healthy food access.

People with limited incomes want fresh, healthy food; there is not a lack of desire, but there is a lack of funds.

We see evidence of this in Michigan where pioneering work done by Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) program connects people using food assistance to an increase in funds to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. The program has been so popular that DUFB sites have grown exponentially, from five locations in 2009 to over 250 in 2016 [vii]. DUFB program data demonstrates that SNAP recipients shop more often and eat more produce when Double Up is in place, and findings from a 2016 analysis of new DUFB grocers indicated that produce accounted for more of Double Up shoppers’ baskets than other store shoppers. At independent grocery stores accepting DUFB, Michigan produce sales increased by an estimated 60% on average per store between 2016 and 2017 [vii].


What if supermarkets are the problem, not the solution? 

As Joassart-Marcelli (2017) [viii] rightly recognizes, “One of the most common responses to these [food access] studies has been to financially incentivize large supermarket chains to return to these urban neighborhoods, which had been abandoned by retailers during the mass suburbanization and white flight era of the 1960s and the subsequent decades of urban neglect (Block et al., 2012; Eisenhauer, 2001; Kwate, 2008)” [ix,x,xi]. Without considering retail concentration and control as a dimension of access, and defining the problem as a lack of particular types of stores, the proposed solutions may end up further entrenching these inequities.

A study by Russell et al (2011) analyzed the effect of the closure of the sole full service supermarket for the population of New Haven, CT. Despite serving the community for 12 years, the corporate office determined they needed to sell off recently acquired assets in order to maintain company profitability, leaving the community with limited food retail access [xii]. This led the researchers to conclude that:

“If supermarkets dominate the retail end of distribution of this country’s food supply system, even to the near total exclusion of significant portions of the urban population, then the economic model that guides supermarket corporations is fundamentally flawed. …Supermarkets need to be considered when analyzing food deserts, not as potentially the best and only solution to the problem, but rather as a weakness in the food supply system; perhaps supermarkets themselves are the problem, and food deserts are merely a symptom. …The supermarket that opens in a given neighborhood out competes and shuts down local grocers, monopolizes the food supply chain received through global shipping lines to the area, and stocks a profitable minimum of only a few days’ worth of inventory. Upon that single chain of movements a community’s health and welfare rests” (Russell, 2011).

The challenge inherent in many studies of food access is that they are often only assessing a food environment for a single point in time, and therefore have not attended to the ground shifting beneath their analysis, given the massive changes that the food retail industry has undergone over the last 50 years.


Brief History of Food Retail in the US

.Until fairly recently the grocery industry in the US was characterized by a relatively fragmented structure. The lack of national dominance by chain stores was mainly due to rigorous enforcement of US antitrust laws through the 1970s [xiii].  However, the emergence of neoliberal economic and political restructuring in the late 1970s and early 1980s—characterized by privatization, free trade, deregulation, and cuts in government spending in favor of the private sector— contributed waves of mergers and consolidation [xiv, xv]. The effect of market concentration on consumer behavior can be seen in the following statistics: 

– In 1994, Americans bought about one-sixth of their groceries (17%) at the four largest grocery retailers;

– By 2014, the biggest chain retailers had tripled their market share and the top four retailers sold more than half (54.3%) of all groceries [xvi].


While the national figures regarding concentration levels are quite high, when researchers consider local/metropolitan grocery store concentration, the levels can be considerably higher. One way market concentration is measured is through a four-firm concentration ratio or CR4. The CR4 is the sum of the market shares of the four largest firms and weights each market share equally. According to antitrust theory, a market is considered concentrated when CR4 hits 40%.

– In 2011, across 231 metropolitan areas, just four big retailers made more than 80% of grocery sales, and Walmart made up half of all grocery sales in 35 cities [xvii].

National Four Firm Retail Grocery Market Share, 1994-2014

Food retail consolidation has had devastating consequences along the entire food supply chain: from declining wages and union representation for grocery store workers, to leveraged price concessions particularly for fruit and vegetable farmers, collapsing profit margins for manufacturers, processors and supplierssmall, independent grocers being driven out of business, and finally consumers facing increased food prices (which can in turn affect rates of food insecurity).

Regionalization-Localization Efforts in Michigan

What is the role of local food retailers in addressing food insecurity, given the challenges these retailers themselves face?

Increasingly, reinventing the food system through localization is also seen as a means to bring about a more just food system by challenging the devastation wrought by corporate consolidation. That includes re-creating the social and economic processes that support local food systems and community food security, and redistributing dollars away from corporations and back into communities [xviii]. This work is critical in Michigan, given that in 2011, across 13 metropolitan areas in Michigan, the average market share for the four largest firms in 2011 was 82.2%, and the top four firms had more than 80% of the market share in nine Michigan metropolitan areas [xix, xvi].

Focus of the FAIM Food Retailer Research

Given the fertile ground for localization but significant challenges addressing systemic inequities, an emerging solution in Michigan are locally-owned, small grocery stores that fill their shelves with food sourced from local growers. These local food retailers are critical intermediaries between producers and consumers, and are confronting the challenges of local sourcing, affordability, access, and equity that have been distorted by our current industrial system.

Understanding the factors that enable local food retailers to improve local/regional environments is important for a variety stakeholders. Yet, few food systems researchers have studied the potential role of small retailers committed to sourcing local food.

The FAIM Project team set out to speak with small, locally-sourcing, community-based retailers across Michigan in hopes of exploring what they can teach us about how to strengthen local food systems in ways that are more just and equitable.


We are currently analyzing these incredible interviews and look forward to sharing our findings with you soon! 


[i] ReferenceUSA. (2010). Available from Omaha, NE: Infogroup, Inc. Link:

[ii] USDA-ERS (2009) Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. Report to Congress. Link:

[iii] Sweeney, Hand et al (2016) The state of food mapping: Academic literature since 2008 and a review of online GIS-based food mapping resources. Journal of Planning Literature, 31(2): 123-219. Link:

[iv] Ledoux, T. F. and I. Vojnovic (2013). Going outside the neighborhood: The shopping patterns and adaptations of disadvantaged consumers living in the lower eastside neighborhoods of Detroit, Michigan. Health and Place19: 1-14. Link:

[v] Guthman, J. (2013) Too much food and too little sidewalk? Problematizing the obesogenic environment thesis. Environment and PlanningA45(1): 142-158. Link:

[vi] Alkon, A. H. and J. Agyeman (2011). Cultivating food justice : race, class, and sustainability / edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, MIT Press. Link.

[vii] Fair Food Network. (2017) Double Up Food Bucks 2017 Michigan Overview. Link:

[viii] Joassart-Marcelli P, et al (2017) Ethnic markets and community food secruity in an urban “food desert”. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 49(7): 1642 – 1663. Link: 

[ix] Block, J. P., et al. (2004). “Fast food, race/ethnicity, and income: a geographic analysis.” American journal of preventive medicine 27(3): 211-217. Link:

[x] Eisenhauer, E. (2001). “In poor health: Supermarket redlining and urban nutrition.” GeoJournal 53(2): 125-133. Link:

[xi] Kwate, N. O. A. (2008). “Fried chicken and fresh apples: racial segregation as a fundamental cause of fast food density in black neighborhoods.” Health & place 14(1): 32-44. Link:

[xii] Russell, S. E. and C. P. Heidkamp (2011). “‘Food desertification’: The loss of a major supermarket in New Haven, Connecticut.” Applied Geography 31(4): 1197-1209. Link: 

[xiii] Howard, P. H. (2016). Concentration and power in the food system: Who controls what we eat?, Bloomsbury Publishing Link:

[xiv]Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, USA. Link:

[xv] Ayazi & Elsheikh (2016). The U.S. Farm Bill: Corporate power and structural racialization in the United States food system. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Link:

[xvi] Hauter, W. (2012) In re: Proposed Albertsons-Safeway Supermarket Merger [Public comment] Food & Water Watch.  Link: 

[xvii] Food & Water Watch (2012) Grocery goliaths: How food monopolies impact consumers. Link:

[xviii] Allen, P. (2010). “Realizing justice in local food systems.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 3(2): 295-308. Link:

[xix] Food & Water Watch, Personal communication, February 28, 2018. See also [xvi] Hauter, W. (2012) footnote #28.