Buying shuttered Aldi’s site is good, but city must do more to eliminate food deserts

More than 500,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts. Another 400,000 live in neighborhoods where fast-food restaurants and liquor stores are plentiful, but grocery stores are scarce.

SHARE Buying shuttered Aldi’s site is good, but city must do more to eliminate food deserts
A resident pushes a cart full of groceries she received during a grocery distribution event at the shuttered Aldi’s in West Garfield Park

A resident pushes a cart full of groceries she received during a grocery distribution event at the shuttered Aldi’s in West Garfield Park

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With the recent closings of two grocery stores on Chicago’s West Side, the number of food deserts has reached a crisis level, exacerbated by the pandemic. It is nearly impossible for many Black families in this city to access fresh foods within a mile of their homes.

What is more shocking is the inability of this city’s leadership to develop sustainable policies and economic incentives to address this basic human need over the long term.

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The City Council recently gave Mayor Lori Lightfoot the authority to purchase the site of the closed Aldi’s grocery store on West Madison Avenue, to address food access in Garfield Park and the West Side.

While this is a necessary step, it is a Band-Aid on a pervasive, long-standing problem.

In 2020,the Chicago Food Equity Agenda reported that overall, 19% of people in the Chicago metropolitan area faced food insecurity. And 29% of residents in Latino communities and 37% of residents in Black communities reported not having enough to eat on a daily basis.

This disparity reflects entrenched structural racism. The Food Empowerment Project reports that more than 500,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts — areas where people have few to no convenient options to buy affordable and healthy foods — with the vast majority on the south and west sides. 

Another 400,000 people live in neighborhoods where fast-food restaurants and liquor stores are plentiful, but grocery stores are scarce.

While the City Council’s recent green-light to acquire the shuttered Aldi’s site is encouraging, solving this problem will require more than single projects and ambiguous goal-setting.

In June 2021, Lightfoot announced that the mayor’s office would work closely with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and the Departments of Public Health and Family and Support Services ,to address these crucial priorities: “eliminate barriers to food pantry expansion; market and maximize nutrition programs and benefits; leverage City and institutional procurement to support local BIPOC growers, producers, and food businesses and eliminate barriers to urban farming.”

That sort of rhetoric sounds good, but accomplishes nothing. Our city needs targeted initiatives, developed specifically for neighborhoods impacted by food insecurity, along with follow-up studies on the results of these initiatives.

The council needs to consider using tax increment financing funds and federal COVID-19 relief dollars to create new programs.Perhaps major grocers that want to open in Lincoln Park, Wicker Park or other affluent communities should be required to also open a grocery store on the South or West Side, asWhole Foods did in Englewood in 2016.

The Department of Planning should develop incentives for grocers to serve underserved communities, hold retail grocery chains accountable for closing their doors and make public the process to address food insecurity.

Steps for change

Store closings in urban neighborhoods have been a reality for many years. In 2017, according to Mid-America Real Estate Corporation’s biennial Urban Grocery Study, nine grocery stores inChicago had closedsince 2015, resulting in a loss of 544,512 square feet of food inventory.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation notes that, according to the USDA’s 2017 food access research report, near­ly39.5mil­lion peo­ple — 12.8% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion — live in low-income and other areas with limited access to healthy food, accord­ing to the

The good news is that many individuals, both in spite of obstacles and because of them, are taking steps to change the food landscape.

With a recent $2.5 million city grant under the Chicago Recovery Plan, Elizabeth Abunaw,founder and CEO ofForty Acres Fresh Market,now operates a weekendstorefront pop-up market and farmer’s market, and a delivery service to West and South Side residents. She recently partnered withDeshawn Nelson, founder of Mr. Nelson’s Movers, and Imperfect Foods to hand out enough fresh fruits and vegetables for 100 families affected by Save-A-Lot’s closing.

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network will soon open Go Green Community Fresh Market, a $5 million, two-story market offering fresh foods and groceries as part of the city’s Go Green on Racine initiative.

These community-minded entrepreneurs deserve applause and gratitude for filling a void.

Still, it is urgent for City Council and the mayor to develop concrete, long-term policies on this issue.

It’s mealtime every day.

Jitu Brown is national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, a network of grassroots organizations in over 30 cities. Jay Travis is a former executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

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