From a new farmers market and plans for a community garden to a new meat and grocery store, businesses and nonprofits are finding creative ways to improve food access in Ypsilanti Township.
Josh McAllister is the co-founder of nonprofit 2Marines
and manager of a recently-established bi-weekly farmers market in the township's West Willow neighborhood. He says that, while some township residents are excited about a recent deal that will bring an ALDI grocery store
to the commercial strip along Huron and Whittaker Roads this year, large parts of the township remain "food deserts."
He notes that the Michigan State University Extension, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other groups have studied food deserts in rural and urban communities. West Willow, for instance, is classified as "low income/low access" on the USDA's Food Desert Atlas
"ALDI is across Ford Lake, and we're locked in this little bubble in West Willow between highways," he says. "You have to go seven miles or get a bus or walk, and you might have trouble carrying your groceries."
Jason Iacoangeli, planning director with the township, says the overwhelming majority of feedback on the ALDI deal has been positive, but a handful of resident comments asked why the township didn't try to steer ALDI toward Gault Village or other parts of the township that lack fresh food access.
"The township has a planning department, but we don't get to make decisions on where projects go," he says. "They have their own marketing teams, and teams that check out demographic and traffic counts and data about where grocery dollars are being spent."
Iacoangeli says it's common for new ALDI stores to locate near a Kroger store, since shoppers will be driving to that area for groceries anyway.
"They know when people go there for groceries, they might be able to capture a consumer going in that direction to get products," Iacoangeli says.
Iacoangeli says the township has been supportive of other efforts to address food access in the township, including facilitating a deal for a new community garden in Appleridge Park in the northeast corner of the township.
West Willow Farmers Market
McAllister believed that West Willow residents would support a farmers market every other week, and appears to have been proven correct. He says the West Willow Farmers Market
averages about 285 attendees per event, or nearly 600 people per month.
"That's almost 10% of the Willow," he says, referring to West Willow's population of about 6,000 people.
"A year in, I feel like I got a little bit of movement with this food desert," McAllister says.
He notes that the farmers market doesn't address just one dimension of the social determinants of health
but rather tries to address many at once, including food access and transportation. For example, he notes that the market offers a mobile EBT reader, which makes it easier to serve the neighborhood's senior population.
2Marines co-founder Josh McAllister.
"It's about food, and it's about car seats," he says. "You're bringing all these things into a low-income side of the township and making it easy for people to use EBT or their SNAP benefits or WIC right in their own neighborhood. That's why it's so popular."
Because of the market's collaboration with the New West Willow Neighborhood Association
, McAllister is able to offer vendor spots to area residents for no cost. He hopes that will bring out more amateur gardeners who might just have a small plot in their backyards.
He also hopes to connect with the management at Prime Cuts, a new meat and grocery store at 979 Ecorse Rd. in the township, to sell their products at the market this coming season.
"I drive past there all the time, and instead of going to Detroit to get meat, I'd like to see if we can work with them and get them out there at the farmers market this year," McAllister says.
A new meat market in an iconic building
Prime Cuts opened in late 2022
, offering meat and seafood, as well as groceries and a small selection of home goods. The store's meat and dairy mostly comes from Michigan-based farms.
Owner Jerral Harrison says the iconic cow statue on top of the building inspired him to open at that location. The building also already had a drive-through lane, and Harrison says customers will be able to place orders for drive-through pickup once he gets Prime Cuts' website up and running.
A retired veteran, Harrison says he was inspired to open the store in the township because he's been cooking since he was young and still cooks for his family. He also has a mission to help out low-income families and be a role model as a Black business owner.
Kenneth Payne and Darwin Harris at Prime Cuts.
"Plus, I want to be active in the community," Harrison says. "Instead of another liquor store or somewhere you get your lottery or tobacco, we're here to help the community by feeding their souls, trying to keep them energetic and keep the negativity out."
Iacoangeli says township staff hope the store will be successful.
"They bring some much-needed groceries to that Ecorse area," Iacoangeli says. "Residents might not otherwise be able to get a handful of things like cereal and milk and butcher shop products to bring home for dinner. Running a small grocery is hard in this day and age, though, and there are not many left."
A new community garden in a township park
Iacoangeli says township staff have also been hard at work putting together a long-term lease for nonprofit Willow Run Acres
to offer a community garden at Appleridge Park. He notes that the township needs to add a well there for irrigation before the coming growing season starts.
Willow Run Acres founder T.C. Collins says Appleridge Park is just down the street from the house where he grew up, and he wanted to do something "enriching and healthful for the community."
"There are a lot of mobile home parks in that area, and those residents don't have room for a garden, so having a small spot for them to grow food was a no-brainer," Collins says.
He approached Ypsilanti Township officials and told them he wanted their support for a project to help areas of the township where residents "don't have access to fresh food and vegetables and choices."
"They thought it was a wonderful idea and asked me to bring a proposal to them so we could work out the details. It took about 16 months, but we've signed the lease, and we're there in Appleridge," he says.
Collins says the plan is to rent 30 20-by-20-foot community plots and 12 raised garden beds at discounted rates. At least four of the raised beds will be ADA-compliant so that residents with disabilities can use them.
Collins says he'll also establish a sensory garden and an Underground Railroad Garden
that will serve as teaching aids for youth and adults. Additionally, Willow Run Acres will offer gardening education at the park pavilion, as well as free seeds and seedlings for those who rent plots.
"I want to make sure residents, especially children, can have something healthy to eat and that they can watch it grow and develop," Collins says. "We live in a society where we get things from the store and don't get the benefits of touching soil, smelling grass, working in the elements, and gaining a skill."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.