Emanuel takes on Chicago's food deserts

August 23, 2011

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(Flickr/Piush Dahal)
In July, Mayor Emanuel introduced an ordinance that would make urban agriculture a new zoning designation in Chicago.

Today marks Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 100th day in office, and we’re taking stock of his progress. One problem he’s taken on is "food deserts," areas that don’t have much fresh food for sale.

Experts say the number of Chicagoans living in food deserts stands at approximately 400,000. Emanuel says he wants to cut that number in half by the end of his first term. The food desert is a complex, un-sexy policy problem, but Emanuel says he’ll spend political capital on it.

When he was barnstorming for mayor, Rahm Emanuel met a young African-American couple who live near 89th Street. The wife a doctor. The husband in information technology. Two kids. The couple told Emanuel they traveled eight miles to grocery shop. Emanuel assumed they endured the trek for cheaper prices.

EMANUEL: Maybe this is a vulnerability for a politician but I don’t mind because you always have to learn.

He learned the couple traveled because they didn’t have good grocery stores in their neighborhood.

EMANUEL: Here was something that kind of materialized it in an existential way. It was a way that just drove home, and  I remember saying to the staff that was with me at the time – I want to speak to this.

MOORE: Would you say before you met that couple food deserts were even on your radar?

EMANUEL: Let’s go through my professional life. I’m a congressman on the North Side of the city of Chicago. What I do for office hours? Congress on your corner at grocery stores. I’m going to be honest – it’s not a material thing for people I represented. As chief of staff to the president of the United States, obviously I don’t want to say I had other issues, but I did have other issues.

Emanuel read up on food deserts and made their elimination part of his transition plan. And, during his first 100 days in office – he followed up. Back in June the mayor convened CEOs from major food chains and he received commitments from them to open stores in Chicago. Then, in July, he introduced an ordinance to city council that would make urban agriculture a new zoning designation in Chicago. The idea’s to kick-start large-scale production of vegetables close to where people need them.

EMANUEL: I see this as an opportunity to address a number of issues with one hit.

Jobs, economic development and…

EMANUEL: We’ll begin to make a dent on the public health piece of this, which is people having the opportunity to have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in their area.

It’s one thing to want to make a dent in a problem like food deserts, but it’s another thing to actually make it happen.

GALLAGHER:  It’s a complicated situation in neighborhoods like the ones we see in food deserts … it’s not just a problem that happened overnight; it’s been going on for a while.

This is national food desert expert, Mari Gallagher. She says Mayor Emanuel could have his work cut out for him. She's not aware of any city that’s eradicated food deserts.

GALLAGHER:  These neighborhoods have suffered from disinvestment and other kinds of challenges, but they also have a number of assets, too. And given that everyone does eats as part of the human condition, we think there’s a real opportunity around healthy food in terms of, certainly, public health and better diet.

I meet Gallagher at the kind of spot she says could be one of these assets: the farmers market.

MARKET VENDOR: Thank you, have a nice day!

Food desert expert Mari Gallagher.

(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

Food desert expert Mari Gallagher tours a farmers market in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood.

This market’s on 111th street, in the Pullman neighborhood’s Arcade Park. It’s got stalks of corn piled up like hay, and it’s got less common vegetables around, too, like kohlrabi.

MARKET VENDOR: It's in the cabbage family. You boil them like potatoes and serve with a cream sauce.

Gallagher says neighborhoods in the center of food deserts benefit from farmers markets. But they have another asset, too: small, corner stores. Food deserts have plenty of them.

GALLAGHER: These smaller stores that specialize in products that can sit on the shelves like potato chips and boxes of cereal and so on. Those are lower-risk items. If they’re going to start getting into produce, there’s a whole skill set around buying produce, displaying produce. But I think that these are challenges we can help stores address. 

Gallagher says food deserts could stand to get help attracting bigger, mainstream grocery stores, too. Mayor Emanuel has already hit this. Again, he gathered grocery chain CEOS for a food desert summit in June. Emanuel walked in with data about neighborhood population density, and he handed over a list of 11 sites that need a big-box store and are commercially zoned (see below).

The talk was frank.

EMANUEL: Although it’s morally motivating for me, they’re not in the moral business. As one CEO said to me and I won’t say who, says ‘look, if you want to grandstand I’ll write you a check and I’ll be done with it.’ I said that’s not what I want. I want you to open stores that serve people, create jobs and make money. I want you to make money.

Supervalu CEO Craig Herkert attended Emanuel’s summit. The chain is the parent company of Jewel-Osco and Save-A-Lot.

Herkert says Supervalu will open 30 more discount Save-A-Lot stores in Chicago over the next five years.

HERKERT: Let me state clearly, this first and foremost, is a very good business decision for us.

Naturally, I asked if any Chicago-style sweetheart deals got cut. Herkert said no, just break the red tape.

HERKERT: What the mayor has offered us is his support from the mayor’s office to do what he can to help us get these things opened. He did not give us, nor did we request, financial aid or support. We can open these stores as a viable business option on our own.

ODOMS-YOUNG: I want to see what happens with the meat around that.

Angela Odoms-Young is a nutritional scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

ODOMS-YOUNG: It’s easy to say we’re going to bring in grocery stores. But we really need to make sure the community has input in what that plan will be.

Odoms-Young says the food desert issue is a broad one and it’s not solved just by having successful businesses in a neighborhood. Even big stores can minimize fruits and vegetables, so someone will have to keep watch. After all, the federal government recommends eating five fruits and vegetables a day to prevent chronic disease. That only works if people have the food available - and children see it.

ODOMS-YOUNG: When you have young children, exposure actually can contribute to the development of dietary habits. So when you have flaming-hots in a community, you have these sweetened beverages and people are only exposed to those things, a lot of your habits are really sort of coming together and you’re greatly influenced by your environment.

As grocery chains, urban agriculture and retooled corner stores peck away at the food desert problem in Chicago, the philosophy is guided by a simple principle: everyone has to eat.

From Melissa Stratton, a spokeswoman from the mayor's office:

Below are the 11 sites we gave the grocery chain CEOs at the Mayor’s food desert summit. Each site contains a parcel of land that can sustain a grocery store based on our calculations. Specifically, each is commercially zoned and is in an ideal spot to absorb revenue because the area lacks grocery store options. The sites were identified by the City and given to each grocery chain.

  • Cicero and Kinzie
  • 63rd St and Justine Avenue
  • 63rd and Halsted
  • 63rd and State
  • 47th and State
  • 4400 W. Roosevelt Rd.
  • 63rd St and Drexel Blvd.
  • 63rd and St. Louis
  • 7900 S. Perry
  • 87th and Constance
  • 114th and Western

Music Button: Sounds from the Ground, "Delphine", from the CD The Maze, (Waveform)

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