"This review suggests that food deserts exist in the United States..
- The Centers for Disease Control
My name is Noah Stephens. I am a native-Detroiter, photographer, essayist, and founder of The People of Detroit Photodocumentary. I started TPOD in April 2010 as a counter point to national and global media fixated on everything gone wrong in the storied home of American auto manufacturing. Even amid the city's post-industrial turmoil, I consistently met industrious, interesting, progressively-minded people in my everyday life as a Detroiter. I created TPOD to give these people a place in the media conversation about Detroit. In doing so, I hoped TPOD would inspire Detroit-focused investment and residency.
Since its inception, the project has received a bit of attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek and Fast Company. This year, the project received a grant from CEOs for Cities and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Last year, a creative director in China saw the project online and hired me to photograph an eight-portrait ad campaign for McDonald's Corporation in Shanghai.
The Food Desert: Food Availability in Detroit is an extension of TPOD. The mission of The Food Desert is to photograph every grocery store in the city of Detroit, the produce selection therein, at least one patron of each store, and the path that patron takes to get to the store. Finally, the photographs and their attendant essays will be compiled on a dedicated website, available in print as a coffee table book and, budget permitting, featured in a public exhibition of prints from the project.
In doing so, this project will create an unprecedented visual survey of the food landscape in a post-industrial city commonly regarded as a food desert.
This visual survey will explore diet in urban communities and that diet's relationship to chronic illness in those communities. This exploration will inform public policy and cause people to think more thoroughly about the affect diet has on long-term health.
As a proof of concept for this project, I visited Honeybee Market in Southwest Detroit recently. Pictures from that visit appear above.
Why This Matters to Me
When I was a kid, I would sometimes spend the night over my grandma's house on Fullerton Ave. between Rosa Parks Blvd and 14th on the west side of the city. Twenty years before Senator Clay Davis did it on The Wire, I remember how she responded to credulous foolishness by taking a certain bad word, stretching it out like taffy, and using it to strangle hapless naivete.
I remember how The Price is Right played as she made eggs and bacon for breakfast, I remember how the Young and the Restless played as she made porkchops for lunch. How the Wheel of Fortune spun as she soaked ham in collard greens for dinner.
I remember how delicious it all was.
I also remember my grandmother's heart attack. I remember her triple bypass surgery. I remember her stroke. I remember her death.
I remember all of this when I, as an adult, eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I've witnessed the relationship between diet and illness first hand. I've watched poor diet cripple and eventually kill the people closest to me. That's had a profound affect on my behavior as an adult.
Since I've been a grown-up, I've lived on the westside of Detroit, in the Cass Corridor, downtown, and on the east side near the historic Indian Village neighborhood. I've never been rich (I actually grew up on welfare), yet I've always managed to maintain a healthy diet, supplied mostly by stores in the city of Detroit. When I hear that healthy food is difficult or impossible to procure in Detroit, I hear a statement that contradicts my entire life experience.
But, as any scientist will tell you, personal experience is not a substitute for data. My experience may be aberrant. The food choices of many Detroiters may be constrained by affordability, transportation, safety, food quality...
Or people may just like potato chips.
The heart of this project is the question of access versus choice. If this massive endeavor reveals that Detroit is populated with grocery stores with ample selection of produce, I hope this project will once and for all empower Americans in low-income communities to see themselves as the authors of their long-term health.
In doing so, I hope healthy vitality is the last thing today's kids remember about their loved ones.
Why this Matters Generally
We know people in low-income urban communities eat unhealthy food. We know this unhealthy diet leads to a constellation of chronic illness including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. These illnesses lead to billions of dollars in avoidable health care costs and loss productivity; not to mention the millions of urban Americans who have a miserably diminished quality of life – assuming they are lucky enough to avoid an untimely death.
That's what we know.
What we don't know is if people in these communities eat unhealthy food because that's all that is available to them or because that's all they are interested in eating.
As the most comprehensive survey of the ground-level experience of shopping for healthy food in a post-industrial America city, this is project will answer the question: do people in low-income urban communities eat unhealthy food because they choose to or because they have no choice?
The answer to this question will allow us to take well-informed steps toward either increasing the availability of healthy food in cities or – should we find the supply of healthy food adequate – the answer to this question will allow us to mount a well-informed campaign to encouraging people to make healthier choices.
Scope of the Project
Once funding is secured for the project, I will visit each of Detroit's 111 grocery stores over the course of eight weeks. I will access each of these stores the same way a typical patron would. I will photograph the selection, quality, and price of food available in that store's produce section. Why just produce? This project is about the general impression the average consumer would have of a store's healthy food selection. The produce section is where your average consumer forms a general impression of a store's commitment to fresh, healthy food. Because of that, the produce section and the impression it makes on your average consumer will be the metric used to measure the subjective experience of shopping for healthy food in a given store.
I will also photograph the exterior of the store, at least one patron of the store and the path that patron walks to arrive at the store. I will interview and write an essay about each of these patrons, the food they buy, and their experiences shopping for healthy food at each of these stores. TPOD will host an city-wide open invitation for city grocery shoppers to be the representative patron of their respective store of choice.
In photographing the city's food landscape and the people who inhabit it, this project will provide a visceral sense of what it's like to shop for healthy food in Detroit and, by extension, what it means to shop for healthy food in similarly-distressed post-industrial cities.
During the project's 8-week operation, select photos and essays from the project will be published to http://thepeopleofdetroit.com. Upon the project's completion, the full catalogue of images and essays from this project will be published on a dedicated website.
At the end of the project, the public will be invited to vote on which of the 111 stores they would most want to shop at personally. Photos from the top and bottom three stores as decided by that public vote will be printed and displayed in a public exhibition of the project.
We will also publish a small-run coffee table book featuring images and essays from the project
Making this Project a Reality
This is a remarkably expansive project. Detroit's 111 grocery stores are spread across an area large enough to contain Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco. The successful execution of this project will require hundreds of hours behind a lens and hundreds of hours writing essays and editing photos in front of a computer, transportation expenses (car rental and gas), printing costs, a significant investment in equipment, and the employ of at least one assistant.
Despite the project's enormity, I am absolutely over the moon about getting started on it. Nothing makes me feel more like I am living a life worth leading, than creating media that changes how people think for the better.
I believe this project has tremendous potential to do just that.
The minimum budget for this project is $10,000. To make this project a reality, I am seeking sponsorship from corporations, foundations, and individuals who see value in this work:
Institutions: Sponsor this project by emailing me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in making a charitable donation to this project, I can facilitate that via a pass-through organization.
Individuals: Please donate to the Kickstarter campaign!
I'm happy to announce the project has already received a $1,000 microgrant from the Awesome Foundation! Let's keep the ball - nay- apple rolling, shall we?
Alright. That's the project. Thank you for your time and your support! Please donate, sponsor and share the promotional video!
Risks and challenges
The sheer scale of the project is its most challenging aspect.
However, my experience on the McDonald's China campaign has prepared me to meet such a challenge. As it turns out, flying 10,000 miles to photograph eight people who do not speak English over the course of three weeks for a multinational corporation is fantastic preparation for photographing 111 grocery stores and 111 people in your hometown. That experience helped me realize that even the most daunting logistical challenges can be overcome.
For a more in depth look at my work in China, the challenges that arose there and how I solved them, please visit:
Additionally, some grocers may disallow photography of their stores. In that event, I will gently inform the grocer that stores we are unable to photograph will be represented by a empty black square and notice that we were not permitted to photograph their food. I will gently remind the grocer that it is better to allow me to show the truth than to allow potential customers, investors, and state health inspectors to assume the worse.
I think most store owners will find this argument persuasive.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)