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Mayor Emanuel holds city’s first “Food Desert Summit”

Updated: August 3, 2011 10:09PM

It is rare that a reporter is asked to just sit and listen.

But that is the strategy the city of Chicago employed Wednesday afternoon when Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with six CEOs of large retail grocery stores.

The city’s first “Food Desert Summit” took place at the Homan Square Community Center.

No taking notes. No tape recorders. No questions. Normally, these are restrictions that reporters won’t accept — and for good reason. But you can’t get together a group of businessmen to talk about why they haven’t opened stores in certain communities without risking that one of them is going to step on a landmine.

Despite his knuckle-rapping image, what Emanuel appeared to be after is cooperation.

Only a handful of African-American reporters were invited to observe a process that could bring a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, but also shopping options to neighborhoods now deemed “food deserts.”

It was fascinating to watch the mayor get down to business selling the South Side. He didn’t pound on the table, or even let loose a cuss word.

He showed up with a detailed analysis of potential sites that included the type of information the stores require when making decisions about locations.

He also unveiled updated maps prepared by the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development that show numerous areas of communities with incomes below Chicago median income without large grocery stores.

Obviously, this is an area of discussion that is fraught with peril.

People who live in these areas have their own ideas about why the CEOs of large retail and grocery stores flock to the North Side neighborhoods and shun the South and West sides.

“Racism” is how a lot of blacks explain why there are so few large grocery stores in predominantly black communities.

But the only color CEOs worry about is green.

And while some of us see these so-called “food deserts” as proof that corporate America has failed to behave responsibly toward communities of color, that accusation isn’t quite fair.

After all, at just about every fund-raising event for scholarships and other programs that benefit disadvantaged youth, the companies represented by these CEOs will usually be listed.

Still, there’s no denying that this racial disparity exists.

Knowing that this problem is longstanding, it was disappointing that not one African-American or woman is serving as the CEO of any of the companies represented at the summit.

If there were diversity at the top, at least one head of a large grocery chain would have understood the disgrace of food deserts before Emanuel had to call a summit.

Indeed, this isn’t something that Emanuel can afford to let slide. Ending the disparity was the cornerstone of his campaign in the black community.

So he listened — intently — as some CEOs complained about the myriad of regulations they must negotiate before developing a site in Chicago.

There are ways to help, Emanuel assured them.

“If a development becomes designated [within the food desert], the permits, zoning and licensing procedures can be fast-tracked,” Emanuel told reporters after the meeting.

He also pointed out that “food deserts” are also a public health issue.

In fact, Emanuel intends to put a bigger spotlight on the problem.

“The White House knows I am doing this conference today,” he said. “We are going to report on our progress and lay out a comprehensive plan for the next four years,” he told reporters.

Obviously, such collaboration can’t hurt President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

But clearly, Emanuel has a passion for this issue — as he should.

If mothers can’t buy fresh food that can be prepared at home, they will bring dinner home in a greasy brown bag from the fast-food joint.

Regardless of how we got here, the mayor knows we can do better. We must.

“I don’t think necessarily that everyone has to have the same four- or five-minute walk that Amy and I have. But to have to go four or five or eight miles to get basics that Amy and I can get within a mile?” he said rhetorically.

“I don’t think it is right that they don’t have an option.”

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