Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday March 20th, 2014, 5:37pm

Chicago's Food Deserts Are A 'Civil Rights Issue', Experts Say

While the population of food deserts may have arguably decreased over recent years in Chicago, a number of obstacles still remain when it comes to expanding access to healthy foods in the city, according to panelists who discussed the topic Thursday afternoon.

The Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hosted the talk in Chicago to hear from public, private and non-profit leaders who work on food access issues. Back in 2011, the committee issued its own report about Chicago food deserts, a problem it says must be addressed as a civil rights issue.

Food deserts are communities that lack healthy, fresh food options. In Chicago, African-American and Latino communities tend to face the greatest food access challenges. The Emanuel administration has worked to expand food access by bringing in new grocery stores, additional farmers markets and more produce carts, among other efforts.

But panelists at the discussion, held at Kennedy-King College on Chicago's South Side, noted that poverty and high prices for healthy foods are big barriers standing in the way of eliminating food deserts. 

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair believes the problems surrounding food access cannot be permanently addressed without also focusing on social issues.

"By looking at poverty issues, by looking at income inequalities, by looking at minimum wage, by looking at immigration reforms," he said. "These are really the good long-term solutions to these issues that we're dealing with. And unless we're serious about making a difference on income inequality, we're really not going to address food access issues in the long run."

Terri Zhu with the Chicago non-profit Louis' Groceries added, "Unless people's employment and income gets better in the next five years, I don't see that the food access picture is going to get better."

Louis' Groceries operates a small grocery store with healthy food choices in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. As a non-profit, it sells fresh produce with negative margins so people in the community can afford it, which other businesses typically cannot do, Zhu explained.

"In that community, there is suddenly a demand for produce. But that demand is perhaps at a lower price than the prevailing margin price, which leaves you in a bit of a dilemma as a business," she said.

Overall, it is very difficult for many grocers to set up shop in Chicago because "there's so much more competition," said Trinita Logue, president of the community development financial institution IFF. It is even harder to open a store in struggling communities, she noted.

Even mid-level grocery stores, she pointed out, are "very stretched to go into neighborhoods where they don't have the exact right metric amounts of density and income that they need to know that they're going to make a living."

IFF administers the Illinois Fresh Food Fund, a loan and grant program that the state legislature created to help grocers succeed in underserved markets. In August 2012, the state awarded IFF a $10 million grant to start the program, which has helped fund a handful of completed grocery stores across the state. Several other stores are also currently under consideration for loans.

In Chicago, the Illinois Fresh Food Fund has only granted one small loan to a grocer looking to open in the city, Logue said.

"The program is working the way it's supposed to be working, but not as much for the benefit of Chicago as we'd like," she said.

"We've worked with a lot of independents who want to open a store or be a grocer, and many of them simply can't pull together the resources needed to do it," she explained. "A grocery store, even a small one, a 50,000 square foot grocery store, is very hard to get going, and the city land is expensive." 

She said the fund has about $2 million dollars left, and IFF is hoping to spend that remaining money in Chicago.

Sonya Harper, outreach manager with Growing Home, a non-profit that provides organic agriculture job training to low-income Chicagoans, said simply getting the word out to folks about available healthy food options that already exist is a huge challenge. 

Growing Home operates the city’s sole organic urban farm that is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The farm is located in the South Side's Englewood neighborhood, which has been designated as a food desert. Growing Home opened its first farm stand in the community in 2007.

Although Growing Home's sales continue to double each year, Harper noted that many Englewood residents are unaware of the fresh food option in their neighborhood. More needs to be done, she said, to strengthen community partnerships to help spread the word about local healthy food choices. 

Harper also pointed out that Englewood, and other food desert communities, are swamped with liquor and corner stores that sell alcohol, cigarettes, unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks. The city should work to reduce the number of these stores, she said, or provide them with resources to stock healthier foods.

If the community "could encourage more reputable food retailers to come to our neighborhood, we would be better able to distribute healthy food," Harper said. "With increased community development, that would attract the stores. And contrary to public belief, we have a lot of buying power in our neighborhood. We take our dollars outside our neighborhood."

Meanwhile, Walgreens seems to be having success with its so-called "food oasis" stores in areas that lack healthy food options. Rafael Malpica, Walgreens' manager of community affairs, said the company has 27 stores in the Chicago area that offer healthy food options. Stores that have been remodeled to include healthy foods have seen increased customer "basket sizes," or purchases, he said. Additionally, Walgreens has conducted health-impact studies that show the food oasis stores have had a positive impact on nearby residents.

And despite various challenges to food access, efforts to expand healthy options in Chicago do appear to be working.

The rate of Chicago kids who are obese when they enter kindergarten has dropped from 24 percent in 2003 to less than 19 percent in 2012, Choucair said.

"That means 1,000 kids are entering (Chicago Public Schools) kindergarten every year at a healthier weight," he said.

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