Harvesting a healthier Detroit

At Wayne State University, we are passionate about building a healthier living and working community. Our urban location uniquely positions us to study everything from environmentally linked diseases to food access, allowing us to make a critical difference to both the growth and strength of the city. 

Nutrition and food science

Serving a need

With a variety of Detroit-focused research projects, Wayne State’s Anthropology of the City initiative aims to bridge the university and its community, making an urban impact that involves and serves the needs of residents. One such project is “Just Food in Detroit: Groceries, Ethics and Governance in the Resilient City,” led by Department of Anthropology associate professors Yuson Jung, Ph.D., and Andrew Newman, Ph.D.

“Just Food in Detroit” was launched as premium grocery store Whole Foods Market was preparing to debut in Midtown. The arrival of Whole Foods Market as the first national supermarket to return to Detroit following a period of severe capital flight in the 2000s has provoked competing moral claims and practices related to “good” food.

This particular study examines the city’s alternative food movements (e.g., eating local, organics, food justice) and the cultural, political and personal meanings Detroiters associate with food. Using ethnographic research from a wide variety of stakeholders (ranging from grocery shoppers to community activists), Jung and Newman argue that the debate over Detroit’s food access is not only about healthy sources of nutrition, but radically different visions of how a city should be developed and governed. In discussing the importance of “good” food with Detroiters, Jung and Newman draw out the different ways residents perceive the city’s present, past and possible futures. 

Delivering the goods

Jared Talaga cites Detroit’s reputation as a food-insecure city — an area that doesn’t have access to healthy and affordable food — as one of the reasons he chose to pursue his graduate studies at Wayne State. “I eat pretty healthily because I am afforded the opportunities to do so by working at the farmers market and growing my own food,” he observes, “but I know there are lots of people who aren’t afforded those same opportunities.”

“Healthy food is a right that everyone should have.” —Jared Talaga

While working toward his master’s in urban planning, Talaga embarked on a summer internship with Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Growing Hope, collecting and analyzing data about local food production, consumption and procurement. He hoped to showcase the financial and health benefits of farming, and ultimately encourage people to grow their own food.

Beyond his internship, Talaga plans to continue to research and aid in the development of urban agriculture so more people can access the resources they need for a healthy and fulfilling life. “Healthy food is a right that everyone should have,” he proclaims. “It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you have — you should be able to get healthy food.” 


In 2015, Detroit cut off water service to some 23,300 residential customers due to nonpayment, citing delinquent accounts of more than $26 million. However, human and citizens’ rights groups say the shut-offs disproportionately impacted minorities and put low-income residents — including vulnerable populations like children and older adults — at serious risk of a public health crisis.

The WSU School of Social Work received $10,000 from the Council on Social Work Education to launch a student-led initiative focused on water insecurity in Detroit. 

Last year, Wayne State’s School of Social Work was awarded $10,000 from the Council on Social Work Education to launch a student-led initiative that provides real-world political action and community organizing experience focused on water insecurity in Detroit. Guided by the school’s Social Justice Committee, “Policy to Action: A Student-Run Initiative,” offers undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to apply their training to water access.

The Policy to Action project has three components. First, it encourages policy engagement by having students identify and recruit Detroit-area community partners with whom to lobby city and state officials, design a community action project, and plan symposia and lectures. It also helps students analyze and advocate on behalf of Michigan’s bipartisan “Water is a Human Right” bill package. Finally, it allows for the development of a policy-to-action project centered on coalition building and community action.

Environmental science

A clean slate

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently renewed Wayne State’s Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) for $7.5 million for five years.

One of 22 P30 Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers funded by NIEHS, CURES is focused on establishing a cleaner and healthier environment in Detroit and throughout the region. Its goal is to understand the integrated health impacts of environmental exposures to complex chemical and nonchemical contaminants in an urban landscape.

“CURES is optimally positioned on the ground floor of innovative team science opportunities.” —Melissa Runge-Morris

The quality of life for residents living in an industrialized urban environment can be compromised by illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. These modern-era diseases are a consequence of dynamic interactions among an individual’s genetic and epigenetic makeup, nutritional status and environmental stressors, which affect key cellular networks causing disease.

Since 2014, CURES researchers and community partners have collaborated closely to respond to serious emerging health crises in and around Detroit, including the lead watershed contamination in Flint.

“We believe that CURES is optimally positioned on the ground floor of innovative team science opportunities that have the greatest promise to realize the early detection, prevention and eventual eradication of urban environmental disease in our lifetime,” says Melissa Runge-Morris, M.D., director of CURES and the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Wayne State.

Stepping in

Michigan’s top three research universities, a leading health care system and a state health agency are investigating how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception through early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents, thanks to a $4.8 million research grant the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Michigan State University in the fall of 2016.

Wayne State University is collaborating with MSU on the national Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) initiative, along with University of Michigan, Henry Ford Health System, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant covers the first two-year phase of the seven-year project, which aims to study factors that may influence health outcomes around the time of birth, as well as into later childhood and adolescence. Upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development are among the issues being studied.

Wayne State’s co-principal investigator is Douglas Ruden, Ph.D., the co-director of the Exposures Signatures Facility Core in the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES). His team is working to determine whether environmental exposures, such as lead and organic pollutants, cause changes in the “epigenome” of the DNA in children.

“My research team has studied lead toxicity in Detroit for over 10 years and in 2015 published a research paper in Scientific Reports that showed that grandmaternal exposure to lead can alter the DNA in the grandchildren,” Ruden says. “This was the first demonstration of multigenerational effects of lead poisoning.”