Mayor Rahm Emanuel points with pride to the Whole Foods in Englewood made possible by an $11 million city subsidy as evidence of his efforts to eradicate food deserts.
But even with that marquee project, too many inner-city neighborhoods still have precious few healthy shopping choices.
On Thursday, mayoral candidate Gery Chico offered a creative idea to confront the vexing problem: reduced-fare neighborhood bus routes.
If elected mayor, Chico said he would ask the CTA to re-route bus stops closest to residential streets so riders carrying groceries have a shorter distance to travel.
To boost ridership on those so-called “neighborhood circuits,” Chico would ask the CTA to reduce the bus fare from $2.25 to 50-cents one-way and 75-cents round-trip to the nearest grocery store.
The reduced fares would be open to all residents of a designated area.
Chico said his plan is based on a simple premise: That “distance and transportation” are the primary roadblocks preventing inner-city residents from accessing the fresh fruits and vegetables they need.
“I’m not saying that we don’t need stores. But I’m saying that, in the here and the now immediately, we can provide relief and access for people to get their groceries,” Chico told the Sun-Times.
“The CTA is a wonderful asset that would work with us and use their buses and drivers to get people much more conveniently from their homes to the grocery store.”
One of the neighborhood bus routes could connect with the Whole Foods in Englewood so shoppers who live further away “don’t have to walk a mile-and-a-half or two miles with a cart full of groceries,” Chico said.
He’s not certain how many bus routes would be involved or how many riders the neighborhood circuits would attract. He would start small and “test it out” before expanding the program on a broader scale.
“I think it’s going to be successful because a lot of people want fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. And they just want to have a way to get there,” he said.
“We can’t put a grocery store on every two blocks. That doesn’t work anyplace. So, we’re gonna have to figure this out by means of transportation. It’s a very innovative idea and could help an awful lot of people.”
If the program is as successful as Chico hopes it will be, the CTA could lose big money — as much as $3.75 on each round-trip to the nearest grocery store.
Chico would solve that problem, if necessary, with a city subsidy. It could come from revenue generated by his proposal to raise the real estate transaction tax on the sale of homes sold for more than $1 million.
“If we need to work with the CTA to make sure that they are whole, then we’ll do that,” he said. “If that means we have to dedicate a little bit of this new revenue to doing this, then that’s what we’ll do.”
The reduced-fare bus routes are the cornerstone of Chico’s economic plan, which also calls for:
• Raising Chicago’s minimum wage to $15-an-hour.
• Getting tough on companies that deprive their lowest-paid workers of wages and benefits and “mis-classify” employees to avoid paying benefits.
• Expunging petty drug offenses and other non-violent convictions that prevent young people from finding jobs.
“So many young people — especially in our minority communities — have records for minor criminal offenses. Pot, disorderly conduct. That cannot be an impediment for the rest of their lives on a job application,” Chico said.
“I want to make sure that expungements are much easier to achieve so that our young people who may have had some problems earlier in their lives can get back on the path and get a good job.”
Chico argued that all of his ideas would go a long way toward reversing the alarming results of a recent poll. It showed that 36 percent of young people surveyed want to leave Chicago, an ominous result for an already shrinking city.