The University Record, February 12, 2001

U-M develops software for online grocery lab in Detroit

By Dan Krauth
News and Information Services

A Detroit neighborhood that currently has no grocery stores now has a fresh food source called FreshOnline@BrewsterDouglass, a result of software developed at the U-M.

At the Community Technological Center, which opened Feb. 7, residents of the Brewster Douglass neighborhood can punch in their grocery order, receive wholesale food deliveries from suppliers and pick up food items the next day. The program offers fresh food at reasonable prices. The lab is located at 650 Alfred St. off the Chrysler Service Drive in Detroit.

The U-M developed software and licensed it to FreshOnline. Warren Whatley, professor of economics and of Afroamerican and African studies and founder of FreshOnline Inc., partnered with the Brewster Douglass Residence Council, the Detroit Housing Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run a national demonstration project at Brewster Douglass.

“We have a model,” says Whatley. “Our goal is to prove that it is profitable to invest in America’s poorest urban neighborhoods if you know how to do it. In the process, we create local jobs, local entrepreneurs and a permanent bridge across the digital divide.”

Students in Whatley’s Community Economic Development class are helping with the project. “We’re working on a Web site for the people at Brewster Douglass to give them information about the history of their housing projects and about tenants’ rights,” said U-M student Peter Cecil. U-M students also are creating a monthly online newsletter that they hope will become part of the curriculum at a local public school.

Plans call for the online lab to be owned, managed and operated by the residents of Brewster Douglass.

“The results of this joint venture are trained workers from amongst Brewster Douglass residents who run FreshOnline@BrewsterDouglass and own an interest in the profits. That’s how we’re building entrepreneurship,” Whatley said. “The model works from the bottom up.”

The lab will benefit residents because “all of the large supermarkets have moved from the inner city, so they’re buying groceries from smaller stores with higher prices and lower quality food,” Cecil said.

The elderly, who comprise more than half of Brewster Douglass’ residents, will have their food orders delivered to their homes, Cecil said.

Residents pay for their orders as they would in any grocery store. “We’re waiting for electronic benefit transfer cards, but at the moment, those aren’t available in Detroit,” Whatley said. “It’s similar to a debit card that holds food stamps.

“We expect to go national and move pretty quickly over the next three years, building out across the nation. We’ve already started looking at other sites,” Whatley said. Whatley expects 400–600 Brewster Douglass households to use the service.

For more information, contact Whatley, (734) 717-7225 or wwhatley@freshonline.net. Kenneth Brown, president of FreshOnline, (734) 260-5217 or krbrown@freshonline.net; or the FreshOnline office, (313) 961-2966. Visit the Web at www.FreshOnline.net.