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Michelle Obama may help food desert problem in Chicago

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

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Updated: November 16, 2011 10:11AM

I am intrigued by how power works.

You can rail against an injustice all you want, but until someone powerful comes along to rail with you, well, you might as well be whistling in the wind.

The brazen way in which large grocery chains snub poor neighborhoods and flock to more affluent ones is a case in point. Although the practice left large tracts where residents couldn’t buy a fresh head of lettuce or a ripe banana, it was only after Rahm Emanuel made it a part of his campaign that this issue got any traction.

Emanuel, a master strategist, has found a way to link his own pet project to first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative.

On Oct. 25, the mayor will preside over a food access summit with the country’s most recognizable symbol of healthy living at his side.

The first lady, who has made ending childhood obesity her signature issue, is scheduled to host the summit.

Her superstar status will give Emanuel’s “food desert” a national boost.

“There will be mayors from 10 cities coming and CEOs of grocery stores and pharmacies, and leaders in urban agriculture coming,” the mayor told me on Thursday.

“We intend to share ideas on how to deal with this both from an economic-development, job-growth and public-health standpoint. Six or seven months ago we were exploring this. We’ve gone from the back of the pack to one of the top cities at the front of the pack,” he said.

Last summer, Emanuel gathered the CEOs of a number of major grocery stores in a room. He closed the door on reporters. And when the meeting was over, everyone was still smiling, but it wasn’t clear whether anything would come out of it.

To get a grip on the problem, new stores would practically have to pop up overnight on land now overrun by weeds and trash.

Emanuel didn’t make any promises, but he indicated that he expected some major breakthroughs.

Having Michelle Obama’s support is like holding a chisel. How can a CEO balk in the presence of the first lady? A Chicagoan. A South Sider.

Besides, whether she spins a hula-hoop, does jumping jacks, or kneels in the dirt and harvests a community garden, she will be in the spotlight, and that puts the mayor’s project in the spotlight, too.

From a political perspective, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The first lady’s own initiative seeks to address the problem of how families can make better food and lifestyle choices. She’s popped up on the Disney Channel and has even recruited Beyonce to help in the effort.

But when low-income families live a bus ride away from the nearest full-service grocery store, the message tends to get lost.

Emanuel said the first lady will go into the community to see the “different ideas and challenges.”

Having grown up on the South Side and having lived in the Hyde Park and Kenwood community, the first lady can expect a warm welcome home.

The food access summit will kickoff at City Hall where they’ll be a discussion of Chicago’s efforts to get kids moving by getting them access to local foods. There will also be a roundtable with the invited mayors.

Participants are expected to have lunch at a small local restaurant where several chefs will prepare the meal. The mayor’s office is also planning to hold a press conference with the various mayors.

“My big thing is we are in a different place than we were just six months ago,” Emanuel told me.

“We can learn from other cities. What we are doing here is a model for other cities,” he said.

Their collaboration is obviously good for the city.

But best of all, it may turn out to be very, very good for the city’s most neglected neighborhoods.

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