West Garfield Park residents line up for fresh food after neighborhood’s last grocery store closed

A rat infestation earlier this month shut down Save-A-Lot, making it even harder for residents to buy healthy food on the West Side.

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Volunteers pass out bags of food to residents in W Garfield Park during a food giveaway by RUSH University Medical Hospital, West Side United and the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness near 420 S. Pulaski Road in West Garfield Park as nearby Save-A-Lot temporarily closes, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Volunteers at a West Side pop-up food giveaway went through their inventory in record time Monday, as residents lined up for free groceries in a parking lot just north of where the final grocery store in West Garfield Park used to operate.

The Save-A-Lot at 420 S. Pulaski was shuttered by health inspectors earlier this month because of a rat infestation, leaving residents eager to get their hands on fresh food, said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush Medical Center, one of a dozen organizations behind the giveaway.

The 100 bundles, which included 10 pounds of chicken legs, ground beef, fresh fruit and greens, were gone in less than 30 minutes.

“People really like the fresh vegetables and fruit, and what they have right now are corner stores and liquor shops and really don’t have the availability of fresh produce,” Ansell said. “We’re able to provide some short-term relief until there is long-term solution, which is a fullystaffed, well-stocked grocery store.”

The Save-A-Lot has been the only large grocery store in West Garfield Park since an Aldi at 3835 W. Madison abruptly shut its doors in October. The nearest large grocer is a Pete’s Fresh Market more than two miles west.

Since this fall, the hospital and community groups that comprise the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative have held weekly food giveaways with boxes of food that can feed a family of four. The groups also are lobbying city leaders to bring a store back to the community.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot earlier this month won City Council approval to acquire the former Aldi site, giving the city leverage over what becomes of the location, which the chain has put up for sale.

The store had operated on Madison Street for some 30 years before closing, with company officials saying the location had lost money for years. Ansell said the hospital system and community groups are working to come up with a viable business plan for another store.

Ansell’s group has highlighted the 15-year gap in life expectancy between residents in wealthy downtown neighborhoods and poor, predominantly minority areas such as West Garfield Park. Lack of access to healthy food is part of the problem.

“Food is medicine,” Ansell said. “For the kinds of illness we see in these areas - hypertension, heart disease ... - I tell my patients, ‘I want you to eat five (servings) of fruits and vegetables a day,’ and they politely nod and say, ‘Yes, doctor.’ But they don’t have access to that food.”

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