Ending the drought in Chicago’s food deserts

Created by: Leigh Burmesch

For Brienne Moore, getting to the grocery story is always a struggle.  “I can only purchase as much food as I can carry, and that is not much,” she said.  The distance, which can be equated to two CTA El stops or a 20-minute walk, is a trip the 21-year-old junior makes sparingly.  “I should go to the store more often, but I don’t have a car, which makes shopping more difficult.  I usually choose to eat out instead.”

While for most Loyola University Chicago students, living on the north side of campus means living farther away from most grocery stores in Rogers Park, students still have it easier than some 600,000 Chicagoans who live in food deserts.

Credit: "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago" Report

What exactly qualifies as a food desert?  While a desert is a region absent of rainfall with restrictive quantities of vegetation, a food desert is essentially just that.  Of course, food deserts generally have an influx of fast food options.

According to Mari Gallagher of Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, a food desert is, “a large geographic area that clusters that has no or distant mainstream grocery stores.”  Gallagher popularized the term with her 2006 publication entitled, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” which analyzed the relationship between food access and community heath.

In a city where the McDonald’s golden arches can be spotted every couple of blocks, access to affordable and fresh meat as well as fruits and vegetables are harder to come by in Chicago’s west and south sides.  The lack of convenience to healthy food choices ultimately forces residents of these low-income areas to choose a dollar menu burger over homemade vegetable stir-fry.

Gallagher’s 2006 report found that Chicago’s predominantly African American neighborhoods are forced to travel the farthest distance to any type of grocery store, chain store or independent.  Residents of these neighborhoods must travel an average of .58 miles, in comparison with predominantly White and Latino neighborhoods, which both have an average distance of .39 miles of travel.

The study also found that in low-income neighborhoods, while the availability of grocery stores is low, access to fast food restaurants on the other hand is high.  This imbalance of food consequently leads to an increase in health risks.

Given that primarily African American neighborhoods have an increased reliance on fast food, residents in these areas face an increased risk to cardiovascular disease, cancer as well as diabetes.

According to the study, the risk of cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest health disparities between neighborhoods with grocery stores and those without. Gallagher’s study found that every 11 people out of 1,000 residing in a food desert die from cardiovascular disease, in contrast to six out of 1,000 people in neighborhoods with easier grocery store access.

In wake of the 2006 study, something needed to be done about the food imbalance.  The food desert crisis is not isolated to just Chicago, but a crisis across America.

In 2010, Michelle Obama started the “Let’s Move” campaign.  The campaign is geared to fight the growing issue of obesity in the United States.  Focusing on America’s youth, the campaign strives to provide parents and schools with the tools they need to raise healthy, active adults.

According to LetsMove.org, childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 30 years.  In further support of Gallagher’s 2006 study, LetsMove.org reports that among African American and Hispanic populations, almost 40% of children are obese.

If we don’t change the food availability in underserved communities across America, this growing issue will only get worse for generations to come.

Taking Michelle Obama’s lead, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who will take office on May 16, announced this past February, his plan to make meat and produce more available throughout Chicago’s food deserts.

In an effort to bring fresh food to Chicago’s health food deprived neighborhoods, Emanuel plans to hold grocery store executives accountable.

At an event celebrating the site of a new farmer’s market on the Southwest Side of Chicago last February, Emanuel told the public that if elected, he would conduct a conference with grocery store executives.  At this conference, grocery stores interested in increasing their influence in the city would also be responsible for opening new locations in Chicago’s food deserts.

In his “my way or the highway” approach, Emanuel hopes to show grocery store executives that he means business.

Setting up shop in Chicago’s food desert neighborhoods proved to be good for business for Walgreens.

According to a press release for Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, last year, Chicago’s Walgreens stores sold fruits and vegetables at ten store locations in Chicago’s underserved communities.

With Walgreen’s providing a direct example of potential profitability, Emanuel hopes to convince grocery store chains planning on opening more stores in the city to not limit their expansion to solely wealthy areas.

Ultimately, what’s fresher than fruits and vegetables grown in your own backyard? Emmanuel plans to utilize the empty plots of land in much of Chicago’s west and south sides through the creation of community gardens.  The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, is one organization within the city trying to bring grocery stores and farmer’s markets into these areas.  The Council Food Policy Advisory Council also engages young people in the battle against obesity with its Chicago Youth Food Policy Council.

If Chicago wants to reverse this growing health crisis, the effort must start from within.  By reaching out to the city’s youth as well as encouraging grocery stores to open stores in the city’s underdeveloped areas, health within the city is likely to improve.  As Emanuel takes office in a little less than two weeks, Chicagoan’s are hopeful to see his plan carried out.

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One Response to Ending the drought in Chicago’s food deserts

  1. Julia says:

    I found this article very interesting. I must admit that I never gave this subject much thought since my town has several grocery stores and a co-op, AND I own a car.

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