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Rahm Emanuel food policy takes page from Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" playbook

WASHINGTON–Chicago mayoral candidate and former White House House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel unveiled a food policy on Tuesday that mirrors First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to bring more healthy and affordable food choices to urban “food deserts.”

Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign–a year old next week–identified problems that still need solving, even in her own Chicago back yard. Mrs. Obama has been advocating public/private partnerships in her speeches to the nation’s mayors and governors through the past year. Last month, Mrs. Obama lent her stature to Walmart when she appeared a the retailing giants roll out of a host of plans to repackage, reformulate and reprice food in order to reduce salt and sugar, trim portion sizes, and cut prices on fresh fruits and vegetables.

I talked with Emanuel policy director David Spielfogel–asking about borrowing a page from the White House playbook– and he said the he consulted heavily with local groups in creating the plan.

What Emanuel has in his proposals (the whole plan at the click) is how a city can work with local non-profits and rewrite ordinances if necessary to make it easier to bring fresh healthy choices to underserved communities.

below, Emanuel’s food plan…..


This morning, mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel unveiled his plan to increase access to fresh food options and eradicate food deserts in communities throughout Chicago. More than 600,000 Chicagoans lack easy access to a grocery store offering healthy and fresh foods. While Rahm will continue to engage large retailers in the fight against food deserts, a comprehensive strategy is needed to tackle food deserts in our city. Rahm’s plan calls for engaging smaller local grocery stores, facilitating public-private partnerships and encouraging community gardens to thrive. And Rahm will reform the zoning regulations that have stifled the growth of urban agriculture in Chicago, paving the way for a renaissance in local food production and improved food distribution to underserved communities.


More than 600,000 of Chicago’s three million residents live in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh food. Located primarily on Chicago’s south and west sides, these “food deserts” make it difficult to purchase healthy and fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. The lack of a store also cripples a neighborhood’s ability to attract economic investment that will lead to job growth, and creates areas that show significantly higher rates of health problems. A recent study found that, among those living in neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food, 1 out of every 100 residents die from cardiovascular issues – nearly double the rate found in areas that have access to grocery stores. While there is no simple solution to eradicate food deserts, the public health and economic development consequences require action.


Rahm’s plan to combat food deserts is based on finding creative solutions that draw on the strengths of the public-private partnerships, community organizations and corporate investment.

Send a clear message to retailers: doing business in Chicago requires doing business in all neighborhoods

Grocery stores and other retailers are finding that underserved communities can often serve as profitable locations for new investment. As an example, last year Walgreens started selling an expanded selection of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables at ten stores in Chicago that were selected specifically for their location in food deserts. As mayor, Rahm will hold meetings with corporate leaders to encourage them to continue diversifying their food options as they seek permitting to open stores in more affluent neighborhoods.

Utilize federal, state and local economic incentives to expand food options

While large chain stores are certainly part of the solution, Rahm will also make small- and mid-sized independent food retailers an integral part of his plan. Rahm will leverage federal programs like President Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the Federal New Markets Tax Program, which enables companies to get federal tax credits for investing in projects in economically distressed communities, to increase food options while generating economic development.

Other cities and states have seen success with these programs, which can be easily replicated in Chicago. In the state of Pennsylvania, the use of these programs has increased access to healthy food for 400,000 people, while creating or retaining 4,860 jobs. Other options that will be considered include giving employers a tax credit of $1,500 for every employee hired from within a food desert zone. Additionally, retailers may be eligible for tax-exempt bonds for use on a variety of store upgrades – from the actual purchase of a building to equipment, or even product purchases.


For centuries, Chicago’s fertile land has been used to grow fresh produce and create employment opportunities. But today, city government stands in the way of a renaissance of local food production by limiting the size and revenue potential of these enterprises. Rahm wants to break down these barriers and help local businesses and non-profits to secure land, sell their produce on-site, and create after-school and job training opportunities. The initiative will focus expansion on Chicago’s south and west sides where large food deserts prevent communities from accessing fresh and healthy produce.

Cut the bureaucratic and regulatory prohibitions on urban agriculture

On Chicago’s south and west side, community efforts are already underway to convert empty plots – often in a state of urban ruin and a hub for crime and drugs – into community gardens. Rahm recognizes the value of these community-initiated efforts and wants to support them by cutting the arcane zoning regulations that make it difficult for community gardens to thrive. Previous efforts to open community gardens and farms in the city have been stymied by a lack of clarity around the zoning ordinances. In one instance, it took two years to open a single community farm simply because of the regulatory red tape. As mayor, Rahm is committed to eliminating these bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles so that Chicagoans can exercise their innovation and more readily develop agricultural solutions that meet their needs. In addition to updating the zoning guidelines, Rahm will also help develop a set of Site Guidelines, which will guide community and commercial garden installations to ensure that community gardens are able to be run in efficient and cost-effective manners.

Allow fresh produce to be sold on-site

Current Chicago laws prohibit businesses from operating in residential zones without rezoning. While this makes sense through most of the city, it prohibitsfood grown on agricultural plots from being sold on-site. Rahm will work with the City Council to reform the zoning code so that fresh produce can be sold where it is grown. This will have particular impact on Chicago’s south and west sides where non-profit organizations are turning blighted lots into agricultural plots.

Expand permits for mobile food trucks and allow food to be cooked on-site

Mobile food trucks are a staple in many American cities, but Chicago lags behind. These trucks provide freshly-prepared food in neighborhoods across the city. Rahm will support a city ordinance to expand licensing for these trucks while ensuring that local small businesses aren’t negatively affected. The new policy would reform the city’s existing regulations that prohibit most forms of street food vendors. By expanding the variety and number of food trucks, Chicago can promote a new industry that creates good jobs and expands access to fresh food.