searching for tomatoes in a food desert

My friend Esther Kang is the editor of Chicago Magazine online and recently sent me this fascinating article from the magazine about food deserts in Chicago.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the article’s author says this about food deserts,

A cluster of blocks without a corner grocery doesn’t by itself warrant the label; an entire neighborhood, or a cluster of neighborhoods, without a mainstream grocery store—such as a Jewel, a Treasure Island, or an Aldi—almost certainly does.

Three such areas have been identified in Chicago, totaling 44 square miles, including an area of the Bronzeville neighborhood where where we are planting a church.  Lack of access to healthy and affordable food is generally agreed to be a significant problem, but not everyone appreciates the food desert label.  An instructor at the UIC’s College of Applied Health Sciences is quoted in the article

“As a researcher, if ‘food desert’ is something policymakers hear and want to do something about, I’m in support of it. But as a community member, it’s another negative thing about the place where I live.”

Terminology aside, the negative impact of food deserts is devastating.  While many of these neighborhoods don’t have a grocery store, there are plenty of fast food restaurants and convenience stores whose products could hardly be described as healthy.  It’s not hard to understand why cases of cancer and cardiovascular disease are significantly higher in these neighborhoods.

Then there is the economic impact.  Have you ever compared prices at your grocery store with the local convenience store?  It’s a depressing irony that those living in lower income neighborhoods often pay more for their food than do those who live in more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs.  Additionally, when those living within a food desert travel to a grocery store (a sometimes time consuming task on public transit) the money they spend will not be reinvested in their own neighborhoods, the very places most in need of economic investment.

When we lived in the suburbs it was not uncommon to hear complaints (sometimes from my own mouth) about having to visit multiple grocery stores in order to find the best deals or specific items: Jewel for the staples, Valle’s for produce, and Trader Joe’s for wine and snacks.  The inconvenience of choice masks the significant health and economic benefits that such choices provide.

BronzevilleCommunityMarketThe article does point out some signs of life.  Low-price grocers like Aldi are realizing these under-served markets.  Creative non-profits like God’s Gang and Growing Home (whose farm in Marseilles Maggie and I visited last summer) are mixing social services with local food production.  Farmers markets are also popping up in places like Bronzeville, Englewood, and Woodlawn.

These efforts are just scratching the surface of a systemic injustice, but they are hopeful starting points.  Those of us with the ability to travel easily outside of our neighborhoods can choose to spend our food dollars strategically, supporting markets and grocers within undeserved areas of our city.

For some personal stories from the Bronzeville Community Market, check out Esther’s photos and interviews that accompany the article.