Whether you live in a food desert or food oasis, you can
make a difference by taking one of these five steps:
As parents, we all know how difficult it is to get
our children to eat enough fruits and vegetables. We barter, bribe
and negotiate during snack and dinner time, and hope that by the
end of each meal, more greens reach their little tummies than the
floor or the garbage can.
But imagine you lived in a place where fresh produce
wasn't sold nearby, and you didn't even have the green beans,
broccoli or cauliflower to barter with. It's not a far-off idea:
383,954 Chicagoans live in areas where mainstream grocery stores
don't exist, or are farther than a mile away. ("Mainstream" is
defined as any store that supports a nutritional diet.)
In these "food deserts," which are almost exclusively on
the city's south and west sides but exist in the suburbs, too,
families without a car are forced to shop where food is closely
available: liquor stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants.
These stores typically sell foods that are high in sugar and fat,
but carry few, if any, fresh fruits and vegetables.
A family problem
For families, the problem is significant. Children who
grow up with poor nutrition have a hard time paying attention in
school, and are less likely to graduate or turn into happy, healthy
adults, according to studies by the Mari Gallagher Research &
Consulting Group. Plus, families living in food deserts are more
likely to suffer from diet-related conditions such as obesity,
diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As of May, the number of children living in Chicago food
deserts was enough to fill Whitney M. Young High School to
"Parents understand the time factor. You're rushing here and
there, and will make quicker food choices," says Mari Gallagher, a
lead food desert researcher based in Chicago. "When you have to go
three or four times out of your neighborhood to find items like
apples and strawberries, that's when your diet suffers."
Indeed. Darryl Saffore, a pastor at Lawndale Community
Church and father of a 17-year-old daughter living in Chicago's
North Lawndale neighborhood, says his diet suffered until two years
ago when he decided to change his eating habits, no matter the
distance to the grocery store.
His daughter's diet had suffered, too. Now, after he's
lost 75 pounds from cutting out junk and fast food, he says it
still can be a challenge to convince his daughter to eat healthy
"The school food is bad, and she's around other bad
influences (when she's) with her friends," Saffore says.
Many causes, many solutions
Food deserts have developed for a variety of reasons, and
there's no single cause or solution. For one, general disinvestment
in Chicago's south and west sides over several decades has led
employers and retailers to leave. Grocery stores have followed
suit. And while city neighborhoods used to be propped up by several
small, independent grocers (whose owners lived in the neighborhoods
they served), national chains-and their out-of-state, profit-driven
decision-makers-have taken over.
Gallagher points to an even bigger problem: Stores that
are allowed to accept food stamps aren't complying with minimum
federal standards for nutrition. Her research shows, for example,
that several liquor stores have been listed by the U.S. Department
of Agriculture as medium-size grocers or supermarkets.
"We need better enforcement," says Gallagher, who penned
an open letter to the White House in January about the
In a neighborhood like Englewood, she says, there might be
20 stores in the food stamp program, and most are probably out of
compliance. "We need to tell them, 'If you want to stay in this
program, comply with these standards.' Then, the city can offer
help with resources. Some (stores) might step up, but the ones who
don't shouldn't get back in the program."
Other Chicagoans are taking more grassroots measures to
help residents get better access to fresh foods.
Steve Casey, a father of two and resident of Englewood,
which is defined as a food desert, recently started a nonprofit
that sells fresh produce in underserved neighborhoods. With a
couple of grants and several corporate sponsors, he turned a
donated Chicago Transit Authority bus into a produce shop on wheels
that rolls into Lawndale and Austin two days a week. The Fresh
Moves bus, which made its debut trip in May, offers everything from
cauliflower to grapes to kale. It accepts credit and debit cards,
cash and LINK.
"There's a video on our website we took of a 13-year-old
kid eating an apple for the first time. That captures the change we
want to make," says Casey, who works a full-time job in addition to
running the nonprofit. He estimates 70 to 80 percent of Fresh
Moves' customers are parents.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository also operates two
mobile produce trucks that distribute fruits and vegetables to
Chicagoans in need.
Earlier this year Walgreens expanded 10 of its
Chicago-area stores to include a variety of fresh produce, frozen
meats and fish, and whole-grain pastas, specifically to address the
food desert problem.
Peapod, for its part, has been sponsoring forums where
community-based organizations can learn how to facilitate online
grocery orders for food desert residents. Many are without
computers, according to a Peapod executive.
The good news is these efforts are working: The food
desert population decreased by 166,428 people last year, or 30
percent, according to Gallagher's research. Of the city's 234
square miles, 55 square miles now encompass food deserts, down from
64 square miles in 2010.
Efforts to further improve these numbers are being led by
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who in June hosted executives from six major
grocery chains to discuss specific locations for new stores. The
mayor has offered up tax incentives, re-zoning and help cutting
through red tape to encourage the stores to set up shop where
groceries are scarce.
"We've been pleased to see him so proactive," says
Gallagher, who advised Emanuel's campaign on food deserts when he
was a mayoral candidate. "We're seeing this as a continued priority
and, better yet, some progress with reduction."
Meanwhile, communities like North Lawndale are benefiting
from the stepped-up action.
As the Fresh Moves bus stood parked at Ogden and Lawndale
avenues on a sunny summer morning, moms, dads and children were
deciding between red and green grapes, or whether to buy the
watermelon they just taste-tested.
James Jones, a father who lives down the street from where
the bus parked, bought produce for his lunch that day-and later,
their family dinner.
"I'd rather them eat this than chips," he says.
Christina Galoozis, mom to 2-year-old Alexis Hill, is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes about parenting, sustainability and small business.
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