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City’s food deserts drying up as healthy choices move in

Updated: September 17, 2013 8:18AM

Chicago’s food deserts are shrinking, thanks to a healthy mix of new and upgraded retail stores, produce carts, urban farms, farmer’s markets and donated CTA buses filled with fruits and vegetables.

City Hall defines food deserts as census tracts located more than one mile from a licensed retail food establishment with at least 10,000 square feet of space. Gas stations and fast-food restaurants don’t qualify.

By that measure, the population of Chicago food deserts has declined by 21 percent in the 27 months since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office — from 100,159 to 79,434.

“We’ve made good progress, ... [but] we want to ultimately eliminate food deserts. It’s more than just about public health. It’s about neighborhood vitality, economic development and job creation,” said Michael Negron, the mayor’s chief of policy.

“We’ve successfully shown these CEOs that there’s a viable case for rehabbing stores in neighborhoods that need them. There are customers there if you are willing to open a store.”

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to eradicate food deserts and end a disparity that has left entire inner-city communities with precious few healthy shopping choices.

Within 30 days of taking office, he convened a summit of six grocery store executives to confront the issue, showcase maps and a detailed analysis of potential sites and secure commitments for 36 new and upgraded stores.

A former White House chief of staff, Emanuel piggybacked onto Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity during a joint appearance with the first lady.

He also pushed through legislation expanding the maximum size of community gardens, easing fencing and parking requirements on larger commercial urban farms and allowing urban farms to sell their wares at farmer’s markets.

A mobile food cart ordinance authorized 50 produce carts over two years, half of them in neighborhoods where residents cannot easily purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

He’s now claiming to have delivered on his promise, thanks to:

◆ 14 new or upgraded stores in food deserts. Three of them are Wal-Marts. Nine are remodeled Walgreen stores that now offer fresh fruits and vegetables.

◆ 14 fresh produce carts, half of them in food deserts.

◆ 253,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables grown this year on 15 acres of urban farms.

◆ And 32 weekly stops made by two Fresh Moves Mobile Produce Markets rolling in donated and rehabbed CTA buses through nine shopping-deprived neighborhoods: Englewood, South Shore, Riverdale, Roseland, South Chicago, South Deering, Washington Park, Austin and West Garfield Park. A third Fresh Moves bus is expected to get rolling in the coming months.

In 2006, food market expert Mari Gallagher pioneered the term “food desert” with a provocative study documenting the health risks posed by the fact that nearly 600,000 African-Americans were living in Chicago neighborhoods where fast-food restaurants were everywhere and grocery stores were scarce.

Gallagher found that the nearest grocery store was twice as far away as the nearest fast-food restaurant in most black neighborhoods and that those residents were nearly twice as likely to die early from diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Her food desert population has since been reduced by 40 percent.

Emanuel’s starting point was 100,159 because his focus is on bringing larger grocery stores to neighborhoods whose residents earn less than the median annual income of $46,000.

“I don’t think we’re using the same metrics,” Gallagher said.

No matter how you measure it, progress is being made because of the city’s full-court press.

“We’re seeing a wide range of good food solutions instead of just one traditional grocery store going in. ... That’s good for public health because people choose food closest to them, even though they might require or desire healthier, but more distant foods,” she said.

Gallagher said Emanuel “wasn’t the first to adopt” the food desert issue. She also worked closely with former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But she said Emanuel “took up the cause” and has been “very pro-active in offering a bouquet of solutions. ... That’s what it takes to stimulate the marketplace and provide consumer choice.”

Sonja Harper, outreach manager for Growing Home, said fresh fruits and vegetables sold from the farm stand at the group’s organic farm at 5814 S. Wood in West Englewood has skyrocketed — from $889 in 2011 to $3,000 last year and probably double that this year.

Not bad for a farm stand that’s only open on Wednesday’s between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“You can’t walk to a grocery store. But people can walk to us. And we’re not just a farm stand. We’ve become a safe space in a community with a reputation for being very violent and not so nice,” she said.

“It’s a totally different atmosphere when you come to the farm stand on Wednesday. Not only are we making a dent in food access. We’re improving the overall communication between neighbors.”

Erika Allen, project director for Growing Power, a non-profit that does urban farming, said she has seen a “culture shift” at City Hall under Emanuel.

“Before, it was a pedestrian, business-as-usual approach. It was, `What you do is nice, but you can’t feed everyone in Chicago,’ “ Allen said.

“Now, people like me have access to information and problem-solving. It’s, `What do you need?’ It’s a very different kind of partnership. I have more work than I can possibly do. We would be so much farther ahead in Chicago if the culture shifting would have happened a decade ago.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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