While the White House and Congress wring their hands over what to do next on the nation's health care front, there is a small pilot program in Detroit that directly attacks one of the problems that makes health insurance so expensive for all of us. That's because it addresses health itself, and the increasing cases of obesity, high blood pressure and heart attacks that are doing so much damage all around us.
To go back a few steps, Detroit – a city of some 830,000 people – has no major grocery store chain within its boundaries. No Jewels. No Safeways. No Kroegers. No nothing. Crime is one factor in the flight of food stores. Neglect is another. Whatever the cause, the consequences are devastating. So the economically hard-pressed state of Michigan is doing something about all of it, unveiling a $75,000 pilot program to bring food to the front door.
Called MI Neighborhood Food Movers, the plan is simplicity itself.
"There's no rocket science to this at all," said Lisa Johanan when we interviewed her last week. Lisa is executive director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., and founder of Peaches and Greens grocery. "I mean it's a very simple thing – put some produce on a truck and you drive through the neighborhood."
And that's exactly what Peaches and Greens and two other suppliers do – bringing fresh vegetables and fruit into inner city neighborhoods bristling with derelict buildings, vacant lots and tons of liquor stores.
"In Detroit, 92 percent of food stamp recipients purchase their grocers from a liquor store or a gas station or a pharmacy," Lisa told us. "What kind of food do you get at a liquor store," I asked Lisa.
"You don't get anything fresh. That's for sure," she said.
Sure, the suburbs have supermarkets, but there's a catch.
One out of five people in the Motor City has no car. And if that person wants to take Detroit's spotty public transportation to the suburbs and then lug the groceries all the way back home, it could take half the day to get there and back.
With MI Neighborhood Food Movers, the food is moved to where it's needed. We went along with Butch Robinson of Peaches and Greens as he drove his truck around an inner city neighborhood. At various points along the way, people would come out of their homes, waving him to stop and then piling aboard his truck laden with grapes, cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, apples and more.
"People want these products," said Kim Trent, director of the governor's Office for Southeast Michigan. "They just don't have access to them. And I think you make choices based on what you have access to."
"State government is challenged right now," she continued, "so we can't put a lot of money into it. But we are very grateful for the amount we were able to put in for the beginning. And we think it will be enough to get theses businesses going."
"I depend on this truck," said one customer as she scanned rows of oranges on the truck's shelves. "I mean seriously, I depend on this truck." Another told us, "This is the best service you ever want to see."
The food comes from local Michigan farmers for the most part, so the program is a win-win situation, helping the economy and feeding people who otherwise would subsist on fast food and candy.
"This definitely makes me feel good," said Butch as he steered the truck. "There's a lot of stuff that's being brung into Detroit that's not so good."
As Lisa Johanan told us, "We get calls on a weekly basis from people thanking us for this produce truck and who are just thrilled that it's coming into their neighborhoods and coming down their street."
In Detroit's inner city, the trucks are bringing food, but it's more than that.
It's an assurance that the residents have not been forgotten. As Butch Robinson put it: "It's a beautiful thing, you know. It really is."