Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the population of food deserts in Chicago declined 21 percent over the past two years thanks to 15 new grocery stores, additional farmers markets and more produce carts. But those working on the ground to combat food-access issues in Chicago say the new numbers are not as sweet as they appear.
Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the population of food deserts in Chicago declined 21 percent over the past two years thanks to 15 new grocery stores, additional farmers markets and more produce carts.
According to the Emanuel administration, there are currently 79,434 food deserts in Chicago, which is down from 100,159 in June 2011. The city defines a food desert as a census tract located more than one mile from a food retailer larger than 10,000 square feet, not including gas stations and fast food restaurants.
Those working on the ground to combat food-access issues in Chicago were pleased to hear food deserts have declined, but they noted that the new numbers are not as sweet as they appear.
Adding new grocery stores, urban farms and farmers markets in certain communities may provide residents with better access to healthy foods, but that alone won’t solve the food desert problem, experts say.
“It’s definitely a start, but when you’re measuring your success with food deserts in numbers, it really doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Danny Burke, manager of Woodlawn’s 61st Street Farmers Market.
The non-profit Experimental Station launched the farmers market, at East 61st Street and South Dorchester Avenue, in 2008 in order to bring local and organic healthy foods to the South Side Woodlawn community, which previously had little, if any, sources of fresh produce. The market also provides educational opportunities for residents, such as cooking and gardening classes.
Burke said physical access to fresh food is just one of a myriad of factors that determines whether someone lives in a food desert. For example, residents could live next door to a farmers market, but if the produce is too expensive, not culturally appropriate or if residents simply don’t have the necessary appliances to cook the food at home, they’re technically still in a food desert.
Chad Broughton, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago who studies food access, noted that those who have cars in Chicago typically do not have a problem getting their hands on healthy foods.
But for people with disabilities and those reliant on walking and public transportation, “it's still a big concern, even in those areas that the city says are not food deserts,” Broughton stressed.
Accessing nutritious foods is also a challenge for the elderly, Burke said. A Chicago Housing Authority building for seniors, for example, is only a seven-minute walk from the 61st Street market, but even that distance is too far for the residents to carry their groceries home, especially in hot weather.
But by the city’s definition, Woodlawn is not a food desert.
It now has large food retailers, like Save-A-Lot, Aldi, and Walgreens, that most residents can walk to, Broughton said.
The issue, however, is that these particular chain stores often have inflated prices and a small selection of often low-quality produce. As such, the majority of middle-income Woodlawn shoppers travel outside the community to buy their groceries, Broughton said.
If the city accounted for food affordability, selection and quality as part of its two-year food desert progress report, which can be found here, “they'd get a less rosy picture,” he said.
And just because a new food store like a Jewel-Osco sets up shop in a food desert community, that doesn’t necessarily mean people are actually going to buy fresh produce, said Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home, a non-profit that provides organic agriculture job training for low-income Chicagoans.
“You have to do a lot of outreach and education to try to change habits that have been ingrained for many years,” he said.
Growing Home operates the city’s sole organic urban farm certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, which has been designated as a food desert.
It opened its first farm stand in the community in 2007, which Rhodes assumed residents would flock to. Even though the stand accepted LINK cards, the market only sold about $50 worth of produce on a good day at the time.
“People just weren’t coming,” he said.
In response to the lack of turnout, Growing Home was able to secure a grant from the USDA to develop its farm stand and hire an outreach manger to help raise awareness about it within the community.
The educational outreach has played a major role in getting people from the community to purchase healthy foods, Rhodes said. In 2012, the Englewood stand’s sales tripled compared to the previous year, and they’re even greater this year.
Thanks to support from the city, Rhodes said the farm has recently expanded and will be able to produce even more healthy foods for the community and other parts of the city this year.
“We alone, of course, aren’t going to prevent and solve the problems, but we are getting food in the community,” he said.
Although better food options have made their way to areas like Englewood and Woodlawn, the communities remain unhealthy "food swamps," Broughton said. The neighborhoods have many fast food restaurants and smaller stores that sell liquor, cigarettes, unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks.
It’s no wonder, Broughton said, that children growing up in these communities often have low "food literacy" levels.
In order to eliminate food deserts, food access issues and food literacy education cannot be tackled separately, the experts said.
“Education and access at the same time,” Burke said. “It’s not one or the other.”
More community organizations should team up with low-income residents so they can learn healthy ways to eat on a tight budget, Broughton said.
And overall, there needs to be more citizen demand for healthy foods.
Stores like Save-A-Lot and Aldi, for example, offer few, if any, chemical free, organic or sustainable food options.
“There’s this notion out there and this stereotype that people that don’t have a lot of money don’t want to eat food that doesn’t have chemicals or pesticides on it, and that’s just completely untrue,” Burke stressed.
Additionally, food desert communities are typically areas in dire need of economic investment.
“It’s really important to keep any dollars that community members are spending on food in Chicago or the proximity of Chicago,” Burke said.
When residents purchase food from larger chain retailers, their money leaves the community and is sent to the corporations and their large distributors. If people shop at farmers markets or locally sourced grocery stores, however, their money stays in or closer to the community, Burke noted.
Those enrolled in food assistance programs also have their own economic incentive to shop at farmers markets.
A number of Illinois’ farmers markets, including the 61st Street market, participate in the LINK Up Illinois Double Value Coupon Program, which awards shoppers with a $1 coupon for every $1 spent using LINK.
“You can buy those organically grown blueberries (from) Michigan and get more for your buck than you would if you buy conventionally grown blueberries at Save-A-Lot,” Burke said.
In an effort to eliminate food deserts and boost local economies at the same time, the city needs to put more focus on educational outreach related to produce that is in season, Burke said.
Back in June, Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Agriculture launched a new campaign to do just that. As part of the "Where Fresh Is" campaign, 200 grocery stores and 100 farmers markets in Illinois have added state-provided produce stickers and other promotional materials that flag which fresh vegetables and fruits are grown in the state, putting a focus on produce that is in season.
Once people become better educated about local produce and when it is in season, they’ll know what to expect when they go shopping at markets and stores other than the bigger retailers, Burke explained.
Overall, the experts stressed that while fewer communities are dubbed food deserts by city standards, that doesn't mean they are actually healthier. A healthy community, Rhodes said, is one that has a variety of places to buy nutritious foods.
“If you live in Englewood near our farms ... there’s a farm stand, but there aren’t any other options to get healthy fresh produce,” he said. “What I’d like to see is a Whole Foods in Englewood, along with a Jewel, so that people have different options.”