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‘Shame on Aldi’: Store closure rekindles concerns over food deserts

When an Aldi in West Garfield Park unexpectedly closed last month, it left residents with only one other nearby supermarket and concerns about how they can find fresh foods and healthy produce.

A community resident in a wheelchair enters a grocery distribution event outside the closed Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, Saturday morning, Nov. 6, 2021. The event was held in response to the abrupt closing of the grocery store in October.
Neighborhood activists protesting the closing of an Aldi store in West Garfield Park handed out food in the parking lot of the closed store on Saturday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Andy Brandt has lived in East Garfield Park for 15 years. He and his wife, Amy, have two children — a son and a daughter. And like every family, they have their favorite grocery store: Aldi.

The Brandts had two in their neighborhood: one at Chicago and Kedzie avenues and one on Madison Street, both just about a mile from their home.

“My wife and I joke because we call the one on Madison my Aldi and the other one on Kedzie was her Aldi,” said Brandt.

But as he and his daughter approached that store one day last month, he noticed the sign had been removed and no other cars were in the lot. A week later, Brandt learned “his” Aldi, at 3835 W. Madison, had closed for good.

While Brandt said even though “it’s not a big deal” for his family to shop at the other location, other residents might not be able to switch so easily — which is concerning to him in an area that lacks enough healthy food options, a persistent problem on the South and West sides.

An Aldi spokesperson told the Sun-Times it was a “difficult decision” to close the store.

“We take the closing of this location very seriously. Our decision was based on several factors, including consistently declining sales and the fact that we’ve operated this location at a loss for several years,” the statement continued. “Poor sales performance and increased expenses have simply made it unsustainable to keep the store open.

“We have been proud to serve the residents of the West Garfield Park neighborhood over the past 30 years, and we thank our customers for their loyalty.”

The spokesperson also noted the Aldi at Kedzie and Chicago is “just over one mile” from the one that closed.

Jesus Ramirez crosses the street while holding two bags of groceries during a grocery distribution event outside the closed Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, Saturday morning, Nov. 6, 2021.
Jesus Ramirez leaves the parking lot of the former Aldi store in West Garfield Park with two bags of groceries after community activists, upset by Aldi’s decision to close the store, organized a food giveaway over the weekend.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

But community leaders said Aldi’s decision exacerbates their concern about “food deserts” — areas where residents lack access to many items sold at full-service grocers, especially fresh produce.

The Food Empowerment Project estimates more than 500,000 Chicagoans, a majority of them Black, live in food deserts. Another 400,000 live in neighborhoods with plenty of fast-food restaurants — but no grocery stores nearby.

Aldi was one of only two supermarkets in the West Garfield Park neighborhood — the other is a Save-A-Lot at 420 S. Pulaski Rd. Convenience stores in the area offer some food but lack fresh produce.

West Side United, Rush University Medical Center’s Health Equity office and the Garfield Park Rite To Wellness Collaborative gathered outside Aldi offices at California and Granville in late October to protest the closing. “Shame on Aldi” read one sign at the protest.

The decision to close the store is “the latest example of corporate/community malfeasance that seems to intentionally harm a neighborhood whose residents are fighting for survival,” T.J. Crawford, executive director of Garfield Park Rite to Wellness, said in a statement.

People wait in line for free produce at the former Aldi in West Garfield Park. Rite to Wellness on Saturday handed out the free produce in the parking lot of the closed store.
People wait in line for free produce at the former Aldi in West Garfield Park. Rite to Wellness on Saturday handed out the free produce in the parking lot of the closed store.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Activists hand out free food on Saturdays

The organizers want Aldi to meet with community leaders and the city to discuss the closure and, if Aldi won’t reopen, they want to buy the building for $1 and open their own fresh produce provider at the site. Over the weekend Rite to Wellness handed out fresh produce in the building’s parking lot. The group plans to continue the “emergency food distributions” outside the closed Aldi on Saturdays through Dec. 18 (except Nov. 27).

“Access to food should not be a privilege,” said Julia Bassett, manager of Health and Community Benefit for Rush. “If I have access to Pete’s Fresh Market or Mariano’s or Whole Foods, so should everyone else, including those in this community.”

Many of the Rush employees and medical students at the rally have seen firsthand how lacking access to healthy food affects their patients.

A volunteer carries bags of food during a grocery distribution event outside the closed Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, Saturday morning, Nov. 6, 2021.
A volunteer carries bags of food during a grocery distribution outside the closed Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. in the West Garfield Park neighborhood on Saturday morning,
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“If they have heart disease, for example, part of [their] treatment is healthy eating,” said medical student Marissa Pharos. “It’s cutting back on sodium, it’s cutting back on that fast food. You can’t do that if you cannot find a grocery store that provides healthy food. So this doesn’t just impact the community as far as finding food, it impacts their health long term.”

But some saw the supermarket’s closing as inevitable.

WVON Black Excellence Hour radio host P. Ray said she used to shop at the store at least once a week, but said the parking lot outside sometimes felt unsafe.

“It’s not feasible for a corporation to function in a space like that,” Ray said.

For Brandt, beyond Aldi leaving, companies that refuse to consider the community as a place to do business in the first place is a major concern.

“Something needs to be done on the political or community level,” Brandt said. “And by the same token, I wonder: is Aldi the one really responsible? Is the one chain that actually was in the neighborhood, but has since left, more responsible for the problem than any of the number of chains that have just never come to the neighborhood at all? I don’t know that I fault Aldi for that, but it certainly is a problem.”

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter for the Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

From left, Rush Medical College students Rohan Luhar, Marissa Pharos and Sadiyya Ingawa pose with handmade signs outside Aldi Headquarters at California Ave. and Granville Ave. Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021
Rush Medical College students Rohan Luhar (from left), Marissa Pharos and Sadiyya Ingawa protested outside Aldi headquarters at California and Granville avenues last month.
Cheyanne M. Daniels/Sun-Times