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The Food Desert

Major swaths of Chicago lack access to healthful food. This simple truth hides a thicket of related problems that researchers, activists, and public officials are struggling to resolve

Illustration: Tonwen Jones/Colagene.com

In the northeast corner of 101st Street and Princeton Avenue, a peeling sign lists activities forbidden by the 100th South Princeton Block Club: loitering, drug dealing, loud music. When Edith Howard moved from the projects to this block of brick bungalows in 1964, the neighborhood—Roseland—seemed a promising place to give her growing family a better life. But the Roseland of today is much changed: The block club hasn’t been active for years, and drug and gang activity is common. What’s more, Roseland lacks many of the basic resources that stabilize a neighborhood, including a good place to buy food. For groceries, Howard, 78, relies on her daughter to drive her the two and a half miles up to Chatham or down to the border of Morgan Park. “I used to shop in Roseland, but I never go over there now,” Howard says of the string of sneaker shops and discount clothing stores on Michigan Avenue. “There’s nothing to go there for. Everywhere I used to shop has moved away.”

Howard is one of the 609,034 Chicagoans who live in what’s known as a food desert, a concentrated area short on access to fresh meat and produce, but flush with the packaged and fried yield of convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Mari Gallagher, of Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group and the National Center for Public Research, popularized the term in 2006, when she released a report on the phenomenon for LaSalle Bank. In the three years since, much has changed in the desert: The number of Chicagoans living within its boundaries has decreased, albeit slightly; at least one retailer is finding opportunity for growth in the affected areas; the green movement is taking hold, with farmers’ markets and backyard gardens blooming; and leaders are recognizing that community education—on eating healthfully, on creating a demand for grocery stores—is critical. And yet, the desert remains.

 

What qualifies as a food desert? A cluster of blocks without a corner grocery doesn’t by itself warrant the label; an entire neighborhood, or a cluster of neighborhoods, without a mainstream grocery store—such as a Jewel, a Treasure Island, or an Aldi—almost certainly does. Gallagher has identified three separate expanses within the city limits totaling 44 square miles where access to fresh and healthful food falls notably short: an elongated ring connecting the Near North Side with Lawndale and Austin; an upside-down Y stretching from the Near South Side to Ashburn and Greater Grand Crossing; and a meandering mass swallowing most of the Far South Side (see map at right).

While portions of neighborhoods such as West Town fall within these boundaries, Chicago’s food desert lies entirely below Division Street, affecting a population that is overwhelmingly African American: about 478,000 blacks, compared with some 78,000 whites and 57,000 Latinos, according to Gallagher’s calculations. For her 2006 report, Gallagher measured the distance from the geographic center of each of the city’s 18,888 inhabited blocks and found that not only do residents living in majority African American blocks travel the farthest on average to reach any type of grocery store—0.59 miles as opposed to 0.39 miles for majority-white blocks or 0.36 miles for Latinos—but they must travel twice as far to reach a grocery store as a fast-food restaurant.

What does it mean for a community to lack access to adequate fresh food? Several things—and none of them good. Day to day, residents must leave their neighborhoods for basics such as raw meat and fresh vegetables. Edith Howard, whose daughter drives her to the store, is better off than many. An estimated 64,000 households in food deserts don’t have cars, so a weekly shopping trip can require cobbling together a multibus route. If the hassle of schlepping grocery bags on the CTA sounds tiring—especially given that 109,000 food desert residents are single mothers—that’s because it is. Many simply opt out, ducking into a fast-food outlet or a convenience store instead, where the inventory often runs more toward potato chips and liquor than spinach and oranges, and where a banana that would cost 29 cents at Dominick’s goes for around 70 cents, if it’s even available.

“Diet has a direct link to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases, and you can’t choose a healthy diet if you don’t have access to it,” Gallagher says. “Many in the food desert who suffer are children who already have diabetes but who have yet to be diagnosed and treated.”

Although other factors such as poor health care and stress are likely contributors, Gallagher found that, among those living in neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food, ten out of every 1,000 people die from cancer, as opposed to fewer than seven per 1,000 in neighborhoods with the best food availability. The comparison is even bleaker when it comes to deaths from cardiovascular disease: 11 per 1,000 in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, compared with fewer than six per 1,000 among the best off. And because nearly one-third of Chicago’s food-desert residents are children, these latent repercussions have years to germinate.

Gallagher has found one small reason for hope: The desert has shrunk. When she first canvassed the city in 2006, she counted 632,974 Chicagoans living within the boundaries she established. Last fall she revisited the data, recalculating food access for each city block, taking into account every grocery store opening and closing since 2006. The result? A modest but encouraging 23,940 fewer Chicagoans living in the desert.

The decline doesn’t necessarily signal a trend, however. Much like a literal desert, a food desert is an ever-shifting organism, constantly claiming a few blocks here as it cedes a few blocks there. A Food-4-Less that opened in September 2006 in West Englewood positively impacted some 307 city blocks—or 40,712 residents, 13,626 of them children—but the closing of a Dominick’s and a Cub Foods in neighboring Chatham adversely affected 16,032 residents, worsening food access for 142 city blocks. (Wal-Mart has eyed Chatham as a potential area for development, but as long as the city vetoes the nonunion megastore’s expansion beyond its one Chicago site, additional locations remain off the table.) In total, between summer 2006 and fall 2008, the boundaries of the city’s food desert withdrew in certain areas, leaving 52,836 residents with improved food access, but elsewhere grew to encompass another 28,896 Chicagoans who previously were not classified as living within the desert.

“The food desert is not one single problem with one single solution,” Gallagher says, but one clear strategy, developing new stores, could have broad impact on Chicago’s food access. That’s why the Chicago Grocer Expo project—a group including Gallagher and city representatives—identified six priority sites, many city-owned and vacant, on the South and West sides best suited for new-store development. Unfortunately, the group released its list in September 2008, just in time for the economy’s free fall. Molly Sullivan of the Chicago Department of Community Development says that while the city has held preliminary discussions with retailers regarding the targeted locations and has appointed its own task force to streamline the process for launching new stores, no lease has been signed on any of the six sites.

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Recession aside, opening new grocery stores is not as simple as identifying a promising site. “The food desert is only part of the story—these are business deserts,” says Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who recalls three nearby grocery stores—now long departed—when he was growing up in Englewood. “These neighborhoods are blighted and unsafe. There’s a poor tax: Things in these neighborhoods cost more, and it’s more difficult for businesses to operate there.”

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DRY CELLS: The three largest clusters in Chicago’s food desert: (1) from Austin in the west to the Near North Side in the east; (2) from the Near South Side in the north to Ashburn and Greater Grand Crossing in the south; (3) most of the Far South Side, including Roseland and Pullman

Salim Al Nurridin, a Roseland resident for more than 30 years, acknowledges that insurance costs can be higher in a troubled neighborhood like his, and even locals can be wary of shopping in places they consider dangerous. “If we cannot get crime, or the appearance of crime, off [our streets], then we cannot convince folks that this is a safe place to shop,” he says. “In the greater Roseland area, we [spend] $90 million a year [on] groceries outside of the community. There’s no reason a grocery store can’t come into the greater Roseland area and make money.”

Home to some 52,000 inhabitants, Roseland has been identified by Gallagher as the Chicago neighborhood where a supermarket could have the most significant impact. “Going on ten years now, I’ve been working aggressively to bring a store—a full-fledged national chain—to my community,” says Alderman Anthony Beale (Ninth Ward), whose district includes much of Roseland. “I’ve done everything so far as to mark land down to one dollar, and for some reason, the big chains are redlining the African American community. When you go into stores in the suburban areas, they’ll ask you for your ZIP Code, because they want to see where the money is coming from. If you analyze the data, you’ll see that [much of it] is coming from African American communities. So why not bring a store into a community that’s already providing your income?”

When that question is put to Jewel—a chain that has an established presence on the city’s South Side—it elicits the following response: “We are committed to serving the needs of our customers,” Jewel’s communications manager Karen May writes in an e-mail. “However, it is not company policy to comment on current or future company operations.”

At least one grocery chain has seen opportunity in underserved areas. The privately held Batavia-based discounter Aldi, which keeps its prices low by limiting the size of its no-frills stores as well as the scope of its generic-brand inventories, opened a store in Woodlawn in October, broke ground on another on the border of Englewood and Auburn Gresham in May, and is awaiting a permit for yet another store slated to open in Chatham in 2010. “It’s typical for us to see an influx of customers when there’s an economic downturn,” says Martha Swaney, an Aldi spokeswoman. In fact, the chain’s nationwide traffic increased from 15 million customers a month in 2008 to 18 million in 2009. “From a real-estate perspective, as some retailers are rolling back their expansions or even pulling out of existing properties, it increases the number of properties we have to choose from,” Swaney says, sounding a bit like a kid in a candy store.

 

Some Chicagoans aren’t waiting for grocery stores to come to the rescue. The nonprofit God’s Gang, started in the 1970s by residents of Grand Boulevard, a neighborhood classified in part today as a food desert, provides training in urban agriculture to fellow citizens. Last year at least three underserved communities—Bronzeville, Englewood, and Woodlawn—launched farmers’ markets. All over the city, in a move reminiscent of the “victory gardens” of World War II, industrious citizens are putting spare land to use, planting strawberries and tomatoes in backyards and side lots. And in West Englewood, the nonprofit Growing Home hosts weekly farm-stand hours at its urban garden, giving people the chance to buy greens and tomatoes harvested on demand from the vine.

For Growing Home’s Orrin Williams, a 2009 Chicago magazine Green Award recipient, the farm stand and farmers’ market are just the beginning. “[Food desert] is a good PR term, but it doesn’t begin to outline the issues involved,” he says; as long as change is needed, why not think broader—and greener? “Some people are loyal to the grocery store, and that’s fine. Other folks don’t like big-box stores; they like smaller venues. And they should have a place, too.” He sees greater Englewood as ripe for community-friendly, locally owned development, making the area south of 55th Street a destination for food- and green-related businesses. Possibilities range from mobile produce units (think ice cream trucks stocked with parsnips instead of popsicles) to veggie kiosks, or prestocked produce bins that could be installed daily in otherwise produce-poor convenience stores.

Like Williams, Angela Odoms-Young, an instructor in UIC’s College of Applied Health Sciences who lives on the border between Chatham and Roseland, isn’t enamored of the term “food desert.” But, like Gallagher, she has studied food access for years, and her thoughts on the subject are as complicated as the issue itself. “When I first saw that term, I really paid attention,” she says. “But it didn’t affect me in the same way until I heard it used in relation to these communities that I really know and care about. As a researcher, if ‘food desert’ is something policymakers hear and want to do something about, I’m in support of it. But as a community member, it’s another negative thing about the place where I live.” There’s an undertone of victimization, she says, that can do more harm than good; focusing on what’s lacking won’t necessarily attract grocery stores to the South Side. “Nobody says Lincoln Park needs more cupcake places, and yet there’s a cupcake place on every corner,” Odoms-Young says. “It’s not the need that brings in the resources. There’s got to be that ‘and’: There’s a need and there’s an economic opportunity.

“I wonder sometimes, What is the problem? Even in my own mind, as a highly educated, logically thinking person, I still cannot imagine [the resources that exist in Lincoln Park] on the South Side of Chicago. What will bring these places into low-income communities, and if they come, will they do well? I don’t know.”

Meantime, everyone agrees on the necessity for more education—the sort of learning that would change eating and cooking habits and encourage residents to shop at the grocery stores when, or if, they open. “What we need, we have to support,” says A. Edward Davis Jr., pastor of Roseland’s St. John Missionary Baptist Church, who gathered with fellow community members in late March to discuss the neighborhood’s lack of fresh food.

“Once we get the stores back, we’ve still got to understand that we’re losing people in these communities, and African Americans in particular, because we’re not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and we’re not cooking,” says the public health department’s Mason.

Robert L. House Sr., pastor of Roseland’s New Life Baptist Church, agrees: “If you don’t know how to wisely shop and wisely eat, you’re still going to be battling yourself, no matter what grocery store is in town.”

 

Several weeks after the community meeting in Roseland, word filtered down that Aldi was considering a site in the neighborhood—one of the six identified by the Chicago Grocer Expo project—at 115th Street and Michigan Avenue. This summer, the city will almost certainly approve the sale of the property to a developer, a significant step in the laborious process of opening a new store. It’s not the Jewel or Dominick’s some residents might have had their eye on, but, as Roseland’s Salim Al Nurridin points out, “in these hard times, the affluent community is [shopping] at the Aldi.” Today the lot is a vacant swath of broken concrete dotted with dandelions, but planners envision a $17.6 million LEED-certified shopping plaza anchored by the Aldi; the developer is even in talks to accommodate an adjoining el station if the CTA’s prospective Red Line expansion moves forward. The project would bring not only fresh food to the neighborhood, but also 250 permanent jobs.

“I’m definitely excited,” Alderman Beale says. “It’s been hard getting to this point, but we’re almost there. I’m also working on another grocery chain for a 270-acre-plus site on the Bishop Ford Freeway. In another two years, we’ll have two quality grocery stores in the community, maybe three.”

Three grocery stores in Roseland, a neighborhood that has gone without for years? As Odoms-Young says, the possibility is difficult to imagine: a real oasis—not just another mirage—in the food desert.

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