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Whole Foods Market to open Englewood store in food desert

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Updated: October 5, 2013 6:30AM



A major grocery chain is coming to Englewood in the battle against food deserts.

Whole Foods Market is set to open an 18,000-square-foot store at 63rd Street and Halsted by 2016.

And the chain’s co-CEO, Walter Robb, knows exactly what you’re thinking.

Why would a high-end grocer known for its pricier organic offerings come to an impoverished South Side community?

Because Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked, Robb said. And because it fits with the mission of the 33-year-old chain based in Austin, Texas.

“It’s been our purpose to bring healthier foods to the world,” he said. “We realize it’s probably a stretch in your readers’ minds. But so what? Stretch is good.”

The store will anchor a 13-acre complex for which the city has promised TIF funding through the Chicago Neighborhoods Now initiative. From that, developer DL3 will get funding for a buildout. The complex will include retail and other shops, a park and green space.

On Wednesday, officials will announce what community leaders and others are calling a major coup: luring the chain to one of 11 parcels of land that the mayor has promoted to grocery CEOs since June 2011 as ripe for new grocery store developments.

Emanuel was followiing through on a promise. Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) also campaigned on the same promise.

“In my first campaign in 2007, I promised I would work on trying to bring a grocery store to the 16th ward. Now it’s coming,” Thompson said. “That site has been vacant for many years, and this is the first grocery in the 16th Ward in at least 30 years.”

The store will be across from the rebuilt Kennedy-King College, which anchors the area.

As for its potential success, Whole Foods set a precedent earlier this year in Detroit.

The chain, which offers an affordable house brand of 2,000 products — the 365 Everyday Value and 365 Everyday Value Organic lines — opened a similar urban store in June in Detroit. That 21,000-square-foot, inner-city store is seeing profits.

“We’ve been very pleased with how it’s doing,” Robb said. “The proof’s in the pudding, isn’t it? In the end, if we open a store and work with the folks in that community, we certainly understand it has to be affordable. I like the challenge of how we continue to bring that high quality of food we offer, yet make it affordable and accessible.”

For Emanuel, tackling the problem of South and West side communities with few groceries and healthy-eating choices, the Englewood store is the fruition of hard work.

“The good news is that I had a partner who wanted to be a partner to the whole city, not just parts of the city. These things don’t just happen. You gotta nurture them along,” Emanuel said. “Given that it’s close to Kennedy-King’s campus, there’ll be ample foot traffic to make this work. And it’s close to the neighborhoods” and Interstate 94.

He has used a mix of new and upgraded retail stores, produce carts, urban farms, farmers markets and donated CTA buses delivering fruits and vegetables to battle food deserts — census tracts located more than a mile from a licensed retail food establishment that has at least 10,000 square feet of space.

But critics have complained that his efforts to bring new grocery stores were slow going.

Mari Gallagher, the expert who pioneered the term “food desert” — with a 2006 study documenting health risks to predominantly black communities lacking groceries but filled with fast food — said she and others long knew about the coming Englewood store.

“It will be an exciting experiment to see how we can help lower-income residents transition to not only healthier foods, but high quality, and sometimes slightly more expensive foods as they become available,” she said. “This sends a positive signal to the marketplace, but more importantly, it sends a signal to the rest of Englewood.”

Community leaders who have been in on the ground floor of negotiations say they pushed the affordability issue with Whole Foods, and they are satisfied shoppers won’t be priced out.

“We’re very excited to have a store of this caliber come into Englewood,” said the Rev. James Dukes, of the Liberation Christian Center in Englewood, among a contingent traveling this weekend to tour the Detroit Whole Foods store. “Quality food that’s great for health and well-being is essential, and you can’t put a price on healthy.”

mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @maudlynei



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