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Report: Chicago food desert shrinks 40 percent

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:19AM

On the eve of first lady Michelle Obama’s visit to a Chicago food desert neighborhood, a report out Monday shows Chicago’s food desert has shrunk by 40 percent in the past five years, but the number of adults and children still thirsting for healthy foods remains high.

The Chicago food desert population totals 384,000, of whom nearly a third — 124,000 — are children, said report author and food desert expert Mari Gallagher, founder and principal of Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group. Most of the desert is in predominantly African-American communities.

“That’s a lot of children — roughly the size of Naperville,” Gallagher said. “If all of those children loaded onto school buses, the buses would line up bumper-to-bumper from President Obama’s house in Hyde Park, make a stop at City Hall and travel on to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house in Ravenswood.”

On a more hopeful note, Gallagher said the report reveals a possibility that the food desert could be eliminated by 2015 if city policymakers and other players do the right thing.

No specific geographic radius exists for a food desert. It can be a sliver of land or extend for several blocks. The designation relies primarily on the difficulty in obtaining access to fresh produce and other healthy foods by a concentrated mass of people, primarily because of the difficulty in finding transportation to a full-service supermarket.

Progress has been made in parts of Englewood and Austin, for example, because retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreen Co., CVS Corp., Save-A-Lot, Food 4 Less and others have expanded the amount of fresh foods, produce and fruits they sell in stores in these communities.

But obstacles remain. Some retailers argue against changes to the federal food-stamp program that would restrict its use to healthy foods, and they object to stricter inspections to make sure that retailers are properly taking food stamp money, Gallagher said.

Gallagher recommends that the Obama administration appoint a point person to work with industry, communities and other leaders on new standards for the food stamp program, formally known as the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to ensure that the program encourages purchases of healthy, fresh foods.

“At a time when budgets are being slashed everywhere, can we afford not to ensure that SNAP promotes access to healthful food, community health and not diet-related disease, and local economic development, jobs, viable neighborhood markets and overall prosperity?” Gallagher said.

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