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Michelle Obama talks healthy food on South Side

First Lady Michelle Obama returned to her native South Side Chicago on Tuesday to promote her initiatives on healthy eating for children as well as her quest to eliminate food deserts.

Obama stopped by a refashioned Walgreens on 75th and State Street. Last year the chain started stocking its shelves with fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where crisp produce is scarce. Often, such food deserts either lack healthy stores or are home to stores where processed and junk foods prevail.

The First Lady said the issue of food deserts speaks directly to her.

“I saw this growing up in my own community,” said Obama, who grew up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. “Starting out with wonderful grocery stores but slowly, but surely, as the economies changed, many of these resources just disappeared into thin air. This is true for so many communities across the country. This just isn’t happening in Chicago or on the South Side.

“If folks want to buy a head of lettuce for a salad or some fruit for their kids’ lunch, they’d have to take two or three buses to do it.”

Obama invested time and considerable political capital in a program called “Let’s Move,” which aims to reduce childhood obesity.

Her visit coincides with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s daylong food access summit. Mayors from around the country gathered in Chicago to explore best practices to expand fresh food in underserved communities.

The summit wasn’t open to the public.

Emanuel said on Tuesday that 17 new chain stores will be opening on the city’s South and West Sides. They include Save-A-Lot, Roundy’s, Wal-Mart and Aldi. Some of these stores have been in the works. In addition, 19 expanded Walgreens will include fresh food.

The mayor said new stores are opening on blighted property.

“What was an eyesore is now an economic opportunity and job creator in our community,” Emanuel said.

But some Chicago food justice advocates aren’t convinced that chains or big-box stores are the food desert corrective. A group known as Advocates of Urban Agriculture sent a letter to Emanuel on Tuesday that ties food deserts to historic disinvestment in neighborhoods. To the advocates, the issue is just as much economic as it is about good eating.

“The ‘solution’ to ‘food deserts’ requires attention to and investment in local, neighborhood-based ownership of food enterprises. This includes a full spectrum of activities, from all scales of food production through processing, distribution, and sales, inclusive of the associated goods and services that accompany a full-fledged food economy. A rich, textured, and comprehensive economy will grow the health and wealth of people in their neighborhoods,” the letter said.

Specifically, the group wants the mayor to hire a food system and enterprise coordinator, work with a Chicago food council and direct healthy food funds to neighborhood-based business owners.

Emanuel said his food desert plan is comprehensive. He said Walgreens and Aldi have signed a memorandum of understanding to sell locally grown produce from Growing Power, a South Side urban farm.

This fall, the Chicago City Council passed Emanuel’s urban agriculture ordinance, which strips the red tape from city farming. More farms are starting to open.

On Tuesday morning, a former contaminated park in Little Village opened as a repurposed organic farm.

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