The 312: Watering the food desert: Still work to do, but we’re close

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It used to be that few people cared about Chicago’s food deserts and that fewer still had a vested interest in ensuring that every section of the city had equal access to fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. But since 2006, when a groundbreaking study showing the tragedy of no access or low access to fresh food in a handful of North Side, and many South and West Side neighborhoods, things have changed.

Mariano’s is the recipient of a $5 million grant designed to help the grocery chain move into underserved neighborhoods. Growing Power continues to support urban farming initiatives in underserved communities by growing local foods and hiring local people to work the inner-city farms. Local community organizations, such as the Gary Comer Youth Center, manage an 8,000-square-foot rooftop garden plus a multi-acre farm, and teach the kids how to cook with the fresh foods. And Walgreens has gotten into the action by offering fresh fruits and veggies in stands in their stores that are in underserved communities. (Though admittedly, many criticize that the retail giant has not made good on a promise to complete the conversion of 50 stores into a so-called food oasis.)

“I think the awareness war has been won,” says Mari Gallagher, author of the seminal 2006 study that labeled certain Chicago areas as “food deserts,” meaning access to healthy, fresh fruits, meats and veggies was severely limited or nonexistent. At the time, some 620,000 Chicagoans had to travel well outside their neighborhoods to get fresh food. “Even the broader population — the public officials, health officials — understand the relationship between food access and health outcomes. We believe that healthy food is foundational.”

Today, Gallagher says, the city has done much to water the food desert. “Now there are about 250,000 living in a food desert,” she says. “It’s steadily decreasing. There is a market for food.”

Gallagher, in her careful way, references the unfair and careless thought that people who live in food deserts are exclusively poor. That’s not necessarily true. South Shore, for example, is home to the tony Jackson Park Highlands neighborhood. Morgan Park, which is even farther south, has million-dollar homes, many of which are far from a basic grocery store. And the north side’s Humboldt Park has also at times been classified the same.

Also, everybody eats food, so the idea that selling fresh food in every neighborhood in Chicago won’t turn a profit doesn’t hold water.

The West Side has similar issues, specifically Austin, Pilsen and even North Lawndale — with its lovely housing stock — suffering from a plethora of liquor, fried chicken, gyro and dollar stores but very few grocery stores. Lots of people are doing their part to correct this systemic inequity which disproportionately affects people of color, no matter their income.

The most recent player is Catholic Charities via its new mobile grocery delivery service Crisp! The social enterprise service, which recently expanded in the last four months, delivers in any sort of weather, maintains competitive prices and will deliver anywhere in the city. It is, however, making a push to work with senior citizen living facilities and the neighborhoods of Hermosa, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Austin, Roseland and South Shore. This particular program is helmed by Crisp! and the American Heart Association.

“Other mobile grocers won’t go to many ZIP codes on the South or West sides,” says Mike Hyzy, with Crisp! “We don’t discriminate on ZIP code.”

The top item requested, by seniors in particular, is bottled water. The seniors can’t pick up the water themselves, so they need someone to deliver it. Crisp! will bring water as well as groceries, and if the produce is not up to snuff, the company offers a guarantee. And, like Mariano’s and Whole Foods, the mobile grocer offers healthy, ready-to-cook meals for about $10. Plus, for this service you don’t have to have a cellphone or the Internet to order. Crisp! will take a phone call and mail a catalog.

As far as stereotyping these neighborhoods as “bad,” Hyzy doesn’t agree, adding that some of it is “hype.”

“We’ve been operating delivery since last June and we haven’t had one problem [in any neighborhood],” Hyzy says. “People like us in their neighborhoods. Everyone should have equal access to healthy foods.

Urban gardens seem to have proliferated more steadily than grocery choices or mobile grocers, and many of those gardens offer local farmers markets or delivery services to residents, in addition to job training and other social needs. A DePaul University professor is at the helm of a number of studies examining how urban gardening is alleviating the food crisis in certain areas.

“I think there’s a lot of energy around local food production as one means to supplement access challenges or alleviate some aspects of access challenges,” says Howard Rosing, a researcher who is also the executive director of DePaul’s Steans Center. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a golden ticket to solving the food access challenge. Are people happy with that as a replacement or do they deserve to have more substantial options? ”

Growing Home‘s Outreach Director Sonya Harper would tend to agree. Her group does grow food, but Englewood still has a ways to go. She hopes that Growing Home can work with neighborhood food partners such as the upcoming Whole Foods to provide even more options to residents.

“I don’t think we’ve arrived as far as curing our food desert crises,” she says. “It did take 40 years to create, and I don’t think it’ll be turned around in five. But things are definitely going to get better for us if the community stays engaged in projects for the quality of life of residents.”

Related

Mariano’s moving into the food dessert

Whole Foods is moving into Englewood

South Shore loses its Dominicks


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