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Michelle Obama in Chicago for fund-raiser and healthy eating push

First Lady United States Michelle Obampicks up live worm from hworker Growing Power's IrStreet Farm 3333 S. IrSt. during visit

First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama picks up a live worm from the hand of a worker at Growing Power's Iron Street Farm, 3333 S. Iron St., during a visit Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 8:22AM

First lady Michelle Obama recently announced 37 new fresh-food stores for Chicago, held a live worm from a compost heap, and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for her husband’s re-election.

Obama joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a Walgreens in Chatham to announce new or expanded food stores around Chicago. The Chatham Walgreens and 19 others in the city will start offering vegetables and other fresh food.

The first lady’s crusade to fight the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic has drawn derision from right-wing talk-show hosts, but it brought her a standing ovation in her home turf on Chicago’s South Side.

“I am so glad that we are doing this here at home in Chicago,” Obama told the crowd. “This is a truly wonderful homecoming. We are not just anywhere, but we are here on the South Side.”

The effort to eliminate food deserts and get Americans on the right road to healthy eating — a large part of Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign — doesn’t have “to cost a whole lot of money,” she said.

“It’s not about government telling people what to do.”

Eight other mayors from Baltimore, Oklahoma City and other municipalities around the country joined Obama and Emanuel, as did leaders of Super-Valu, Walgreens, and other stores expanding their offerings in Chicago and around the country.

“Before Walgreens started selling fruits and vegetables and other grocery items, there were not a whole lot of convenient places for people in certain communities to buy fresh produce,” Obama said. “And a lot of folks wound up buying their groceries at gas stations at ridiculously high prices, not the right quality at times, or convenience stores, places with few, if any, healthy options.

“And I saw this growing up in my own community, you know? Starting out with wonderful grocery stores and places to go — you could walk down the street. But slowly, but surely, as the economy changed, many of these resources just disappeared into thin air.”

Chicago’s aldermen ran for re-election last year touting their efforts to recruit grocery store chains — even non-traditional groceries such as Walgreens — to open new stores on the South and West Sides, so the deserts are not as pervasive as they used to be.

From there, the first lady headed to the Iron Street Farms, an urban farm growing produce in Bridgeport on the West Bank of the Chicago River in an industrial area. Much of the farm is inside a warehouse where aquaponics and grow lights allow farming through Chicago’s harsh winter.

“It’s alive!” the first lady shouted as a worker pulled a worm out of a compost bin and handed it to her. Obama and Emanuel stood amid rows of compost-filled wooden boxes that looked almost like coffins.

Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based non-profit that runs the farm, was started by Obama friend and advisor Will Allen. His daughter, Erika, runs the six farms in Chicago.

They use food scraps to get the compost going, Erika Allen explained.

From the compost boxes, they led Obama over to the aquaponics section and pulled out young tilapia for her to see. She saw a vertical mushroom-growing station, then headed outside to watch workers planting curly Kale in four greenhouses near the river bank.

Emanuel also announced a memorandum of understanding with Walgreens and some of the other stores to take food from Iron Street.

Obama left the farm headed for Plumbers Hall where an expected 500 supporters of President Barack Obama’s re-election effort paid $100, $500, or up to $10,000 to see the first lady on the Near West Side.

A donation of $10,000 earned a family of up to six a chance to be photographed with the first lady.

“My goodness, Chicago. I see all my neighbors, all my friends,” she said, waving to the crowd. “I am just thrilled to be back home, even though I don’t get to go to my house.”

Obama gave a variation of the stump speech she gave earlier in Detroit and is expected to give later this week in Florida between nutrition rallies:

“The fact is that in just over a year now, we’re going to make a decision between two very different visions for this country —very different. And I am here tonight because when it comes to just about every one of those issues — from the health of our community, our economic security to the quality of our schools, the stakes for our families, and for our country have never been higher. Never.”

The president himself was in California hosting fund-raisers and taping an episode of the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Patrick Brady gave the first lady a tongue-in-cheek tweak for combining Tuesday’s fund-raiser with a chance to tout her nutrition initiative.

“I fully support the first lady on her nutrition efforts,” Brady said. “And I think it’s miraculous that Harvest Day in Chicago coincides with a fund-raiser.”

The Obama Victory Fund will be picking up part of the tab for the first lady’s visit because it is at least in part political.

After the fund-raiser, Obama stopped at her husband’s national re-election headquarters in the Prudential Building to “fire up” the troops.

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