Greens, beans, potatoes, ham, chicken, turkey, yams, YOU NAME IT. But YOU WON’T FIND IT.
If you take a drive down 63rd, 71st, 75th, 79th and 83rd between Stony Island (East) and Damen (West), you will find a surplus of “food and liquor” stores every three blocks and “food marts” in every gas station. In fact, on 79th street, there is not one supermarket from Lake Shore Drive to Pulaski. This disparity of available quality, nutritious food choices is called a food desert and has plagued low-income, urban neighborhoods for several years.
The Food Empowerment Project describes a food desert as a geographic area where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.
In July 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that several major retailers, foundations and small businesses have committed to bringing healthier food to neighborhoods where supermarkets are scarce. One of her primary goals of the Let’s Move campaign was to eliminate these food deserts and to ensure parents from every part of the country have access to fresh produce and healthy food options. Nine years later, we have seen little progress in this initiative. According to a February 2019 article on Stackers.com, the southside holds two of the top three spots on their list of poorest places in Chicago. Consequently, these neighborhoods are stricken with food deserts: #3 Auburn Gresham, Roseland, Chatham, Avalon Park, Burnside , and #1 the Chicago Lawn, Englewood, West Englewood, and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods.
Over the last few years, the city has taken action to bring more grocery stores to urban areas to provide more accessible, fresh, and affordable groceries. In 2015, a Walmart Neighborhood Market debuted in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the corner of 76th and Ashland. In 2016, Whole Foods opened its doors in Englewood, right on 63rd and Halsted. In August 2019, $1.8 million was awarded to 23 projects through the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) inaugural grants program. This grant benefits the west side of Chicago, particularly, the Austin neighborhood. Most recently, last month, after being vacant for six years, the owners of the independent chain Shop & Save finally filled this void in the south shore area with their new store, Local Market Foods.
The food-desert crisis won’t be solved overnight, but the city remains hopeful that new businesses will continue to invest in the South and West Sides.
Kim Durden, Contributing Writer