Muslim Coalition Targets Arab-Run Stores in Food Deserts

February 18, 2010

Download Story
Corner store owner Falah Farhoudeh and his wife. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Food deserts are communities without major grocery stores – sometimes for many miles. Corner stores fill that void in many neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side. But these stores often don't sell fresh or healthy food. Now a coalition of Arab and African-American Muslims is looking closely at such small South Side stores, many of which are owned by Arabs. The coalition is working to hold these corner stores more accountable to their neighbors.

Chicago hip-hopper Mikkey Halsted is unambiguous in his rap about food and liquor stores.

ambi: Liquor song fade down

Corner stores can be aesthetically unattractive storefronts crammed with junk food – setting off tension between black customers and Arab store owners.

ambi: song

And for that reason the Inner City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, has started Muslim Run. It's a campaign to tackle poverty and the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color. An interracial group of IMAN organizers watch Mikkey Halsted's video in a recent planning session … and it strikes a chord.

ambi:

Rami Nashashibi is executive director of IMAN. He has cultural entrée into black and Arab communities…and he has ideas of how to change the corner store paradigm – one that addresses mutual interests around race, class and immigrants.
 
NASHASHIBI: To develop an alternative, wholitstic, empowering powerful, dynamic business model.

He longs for an interethnic cooperation.

NASHASHIBI: It doesn't have to be just either Mahmoud's Food or Liquor or Wal-Mart, for instance. There are middle-ground options where we can have corner stores that are anchored in some of the great legacy of the black-owned store principles and values.

The legacy goes back to the black power movement and black Muslim ideals of building up neighborhoods with small businesses. IMAN conducted a survey in Englewood and surrounding neighborhoods.

Organizers interviewed Arab store owners and black community members. Racial stereotypes peppered responses from both groups.

ambi

Nashashibi and I go out one afternoon to the busy corner of 69th and Ashland. We stop in Bayless, a corner store that has the varied offerings of a dollar store – hair products to canned goods to underwear…as well as potato chips, candy and pop.

The owner says he doesn't have the capability to sell fresh food. And he insists people aren't demanding those groceries. Residents have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease in this food desert community. These stores, no doubt, contribute to their diets. This is a big concern for food justice advocates who look around and don't see fresh produce, leafy green vegetables and a clean meat department.

ambi

Falah Farhoudeh takes pride in his store. He and IMAN's Nashashibi are both from Palestine. Nashashibi tells the owner that blacks rated his store higher than they rated other stores in the survey.

NASHASHIBI: Ninety percent said ‘we think they treat us badly, look down on us.' In your store, they said they get treated with respect. He treats ‘us' different than the what they call A-rabs…

Farhoudeh pulls out his financial ledger.

FARHOUDEH: I give them lot of credit. I help them sometimes short of money. Sometimes you don't have money I give them some. I take care of the people like they take care of me. People good with me, I'm good with them.

Farhoudeh's racial sensitivity may be because his wife Trina is black. They've been married 14 years. She works behind the counter and says the store's philosophy is basic.

TRINA: Just have a good rapport with the customers. They come in, you say ‘hello, may I help you.' I just know they prefer coming here than the store on the corner.

ambi: cross fades

That store on the corner is called Rudy's. Owner Yasser Salam sits by the door like an impatient nightclub bouncer. Salam admits he gets into it with customers.

SALAM: That's why they're mad. They're mad because you don't do whatever they want you to do. That's most of the reason believe me. They want to take credit, can I own you, can I own you. You open business in their neighborhood. The white folks run away from here. Where the white folks?

Salam looks sheepish when I ask about him being a Muslim who sells alcohol. IMAN's campaign also challenges too many liquor stores clustered in the same communities.

SALAM: It's not illegal. It's against my religion; that's in the judgment day.

And then, as if right on cue, an argument between Salam and a customer ensues over defective cans of beer. Customer says he bought busted beer and Salam disagrees.

ambi riff:

ambi fades: ambi up:

Around the corner from Rudy's is Miracle Palace, a black beauty salon. The stylists and customers have absolutely nothing nice to say about Rudy's. They say the pricing on items is haphazard and people are needlessly banned from the establishment.

ambi: voices of Miracle Palace

The city's racial segregation plays a role with these stores: Arab merchants may end up in these disinvested communities because they couldn't find a space in other ethnic neighborhoods.

IMAN is hoping to get this raw dialogue on both sides into larger community forums -- with the goal of finding solutions. One of those solutions might be policy driven. Organizers want small neighborhood stores to benefit from state money that's earmarked for fresh food.

And they're turning to State Sen. Jacqueline Collins for help. She's trying to get money from a fresh food bill pushed out to a wider pool of grocers.

COLLINS: It says in the legislation qualified grocers. We're in the process of defining that. I think it's important to not just restrict that to mainline supermarkets.

IMAN is watching this legislation closely. In addition to making corner stores better neighbors, the objective of the Muslim Run campaign is to eradicate food deserts altogether.

Citywide Community Health & Wellness Forum
Saturday, Feb. 20: Breakfast 9:30 a.m., Forum at 10 a.m.
AFC Theater, 7859 S. Ashland, Chicago