Organizers say Chicago’s food deserts don’t just happen, they’re created

Some say the term ‘food desert’ diverts blame from those responsible for low-food access in some communities. They prefer ‘food apartheid.’

Coretta Pruitt shops at Aldi
Coretta Pruitt, left, and her daughter Evelyn leave the Aldi store in south suburban Blue Island. The Aldi in Chicago's Auburn Gresham community, about five minutes from Pruitt's home, closed this summer. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Coretta Pruitt shops at Aldi
Coretta Pruitt, left, and her daughter Evelyn leave the Aldi store in south suburban Blue Island. The Aldi in Chicago's Auburn Gresham community, about five minutes from Pruitt's home, closed this summer. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

Organizers say Chicago’s food deserts don’t just happen, they’re created

Some say the term ‘food desert’ diverts blame from those responsible for low-food access in some communities. They prefer ‘food apartheid.’

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On June 12, Auburn Gresham residents were shocked to learn their local Aldi grocery store, located at 7627 S. Ashland Ave., had closed. Community members say Aldi failed to provide any prior notice about the closure. Some had even arrived at the store to go grocery shopping that week, only to be met with a boarded-up building.

For Coretta Pruitt — a lifelong Aldi shopper — the shuttered store on Ashland was a convenient five-minute drive from her home, making it easy for her to stop in two to three times a week. Now, she drives roughly 30 minutes to a different Aldi in south suburban Blue Island to go grocery shopping about once a week. She recalled visiting the now-closed store the week before June 12. Immediately, she noticed that something was off.

“I noticed it was so empty on the shelves,” Pruitt said. “I saw a couple of the employees. They knew me by name. I knew them by name, and I was like ‘Hey, where’s this? Where’s that?’ And, of course, the answer was like ‘Oh, the truck is coming.’ And I didn’t think anything of it.”

The Aldi in Auburn Gresham is the latest in a string of recent grocery closures or closure announcements in some South and West Side neighborhoods. Auburn Gresham had already seen the closure of a Save A Lot store. West Garfield Park also lost an Aldi last October. Additionally, Whole Foods earlier this year announced it would be closing its location in Englewood. That Whole Foods location, Englewood’s largest grocery store, had a highly anticipated opening in 2016, as it was celebrated for its potential to bring healthier food options to the area.

Collectively, these closures have sparked outrage among residents and community leaders, along with a larger conversation around the inequitable state of food access across Chicago.

“Different stores like Whole Foods and Aldi, at the end of the day they’re a business,” said Enrique Orosco, data and communications specialist at the Chicago Food Policy Action Council. “Their goal or purpose is not to feed our community. Their mission as a business is to make money.”

A common term that has been used to describe areas with low food access, like West Garfield Park in Chicago and across the U.S., is “food desert.” However, some organizations, such as the Chicago Food Action Policy Council, dislike the phrase, arguing for the use of “food apartheid” instead. Supporters of that term argue labeling a community a food desert implies low food access is naturally occurring and diverts blame from the systems and parties that should be held responsible.

“These came about through very systematic policies and decisions that were made by people,” said Orosco. “Calling the issue for what it is gives power back to people and organizers.”

In neighborhoods such as Auburn Gresham, Englewood and West Garfield Park, the closure of just one grocery store can have a major impact on an entire community, as these are communities that endured decades of disinvestment and already lack an abundance of accessible food stores.

A 2018 study published by researchers from various Chicago-area universities, found that even though the number of supermarkets increased in the city of Chicago from 2007 to 2014, there was little to no increase in grocery stores during that span in communities that were defined as low-access at the start of the study. Those communities tended to be predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods, located on the city’s South Side.

Daniel Block, one of the researchers behind this study, said this pattern continues to worsen, with the South and West sides having the worst food access in the city. Block, who also dislikes the term “food desert,” asserts this pattern is far from random.

“We see that those maps often align with historic maps of redlining,” Block said. “When a store closes and it doesn’t reopen, that adds to that pattern of disinvestment.”

Closed Aldi store in Auburn Gresham
An Aldi store located at 7627 S. Ashland Ave. in the Auburn Gresham community is shown in this June 2022 file photo. The store closed permanently on June 12, without warning. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
With big box grocers like Aldi and Whole Foods coming and going, organizers and community leaders are reimagining what food access in Chicago should look like through the development of community-owned grocery stores, support of local farmers and community gardens. A current initiative from the Chicago Food Policy Action Council is to aid in the distribution of food produced by local farmers of color.

“There is a concentration of gardens and farms in the South Side because those are communities that have been historically disinvested in by the city,” said Orosco. “The work is happening.”

While a Walmart Neighborhood Market remains across the street from the shuttered Aldi store in Auburn Gresham, many residents said they preferred Aldi over Walmart for its affordable prices and produce. Now, between rising food costs across the country and one less grocery store in a South Side community that has already felt the brunt of disinvestment from the closures of other stores in recent years like CVS and Save A Lot, some residents are struggling to get food on the table.

Fitzgerald Craan, director of St. Sabina social services center, said that in the month of June, the client numbers at St. Sabina’s food pantry in Auburn Gresham increased from 793 to 919. This increase was the highest monthly spike Craan had seen in clients all year.

“I think many residents in this community have made my pantry their grocery store because there aren’t any within a mile or so from where they live,” Craan said.

Cynthia Love, president of Block by Block, a housing education nonprofit, said that since the Aldi closure she’s been receiving calls from residents inquiring about when her organization might once again start holding the food drives that it hosted at the start of the pandemic.

“I’ve seen the numbers go up of people asking about food resources,” she said. “I’ve been getting calls from other neighbors who have been asking me about food pantries. Are we going to get the food again?”

So what happened for Aldi to close so abruptly?

Following the closure, in a statement, Aldi cited low sales and repeated burglaries at the store as their reasoning behind shutting down the Auburn Gresham location.

Ald. David Moore, 17th Ward, disputes Aldi’s reasoning. According to Moore, the only two incidents that occurred at the store took place during widespread civil unrest in the summer of 2020. His office responded promptly to these incidents by increasing police presence at that location, Moore said.

“During the civil unrest, the Aldi was the only store that was open because we were able to protect that one,” Moore said. “I can say [the closure] wasn’t due to crime, and they better take that scenario out of it.”

In response to the closure, Moore said he had a meeting scheduled with a regional vice president for Aldi. But Moore said the meeting was canceled by Aldi after Moore asked to bring along officials from the mayor’s office and the city’s department of planning and development.

“She had no plans of even trying to get help and wanting help,” Moore said. “She just said that that decision is final and that’s it.”

Many Auburn Gresham residents valued the store, often stopping in at least once a week to shop. Now, this closure has left them confused and disappointed.

“It was a disappointment to see that even though we were doing all that we could do to get them to stay, they just left in the middle of the night,” said Love.

“All we get is that that’s not the first time they’ve done this,” said resident Betty Swanson. “That’s all we keep hearing.”

Swanson is right. In October of last year, the company shuttered its West Garfield Park location abruptly, in a rather identical fashion to the Aldi in Auburn Gresham, stunning residents.

Shortly after this closure, West Garfield Park’s Save A Lot temporarily shut down, leaving the entire community without a grocery store.

Shnia Davis is the executive assistant for the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, a local community building organization. She moved to West Garfield Park three years ago and shopped at Aldi’s often before it closed.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen two grocery stores close,” she said. “I went there [Aldi] one day and came back a couple days later and it was closed.”

Davis said she ultimately had to buy a car due to the closure. The nearest grocery store to Davis was a Jewel Osco in Oak Park, located four miles away from her home.

Coretta Pruitt at Aldi
Coretta Pruitt, left, and her daughter Evelyn pick out groceries at a south suburban Aldi store. Pruitt, a lifelong Aldi shopper, makes the 30-minute drive to the store about once a week now that the Aldi near her home has closed permanently. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
So what’s next for Auburn Gresham? Soon, its residents may have another grocery store to choose from. The minority-owned company Yellow Banana recently received a $13.5 million grant from the city to update and revitalize Save A Lot stores across the city. As part of this grant, Yellow Banana plans to buy and reopen a shuttered Save A Lot location in Auburn Gresham. They also plan to renovate the Save A Lot in West Garfield Park.

According to its website, Yellow Banana currently owns six Save A Lot stores across Chicago. The company buys stores from Save A Lot, revitalizes the buildings and runs them under the same name. The company is also partnering with acclaimed food insecurity researcher Mari Gallagher to take a look at expanding food assistance programs across the country.

Michael Nance, one of the co-founders of Yellow Banana, cites what happened with the Aldi closures in Auburn Gresham and West Garfield Park as a prime example of a lack of community engagement. It’s a trend he wants to change with the reopening of Save A Lot stores in both of those communities.

“It’s on us to be transparent and communicative and engage with these communities when it is needed,” Nance said. “Everyone deserves a dignified shopping experience.”

Pruitt said she’s attending community meetings that Yellow Banana has been hosting with the city’s department of planning and development as they work toward acquiring and renovating the shuttered Save A Lot in Auburn Gresham. During these meetings, some residents have expressed their disapproval to keep the Save A Lot name attached to the store, Pruitt said.

“It sounds like a good concept, but you’re not really listening to the residents,” Pruitt said. “The people are saying you can make it all beautiful, but if you slap the same name on it, we’re going to think it’s the same Save A Lot as before.”

Yellow Banana hopes to open the Save A Lot in Auburn Gresham by the end of this year, Nance said.

In the meantime, many Auburn Gresham residents say they just want to be heard. And while many of them were left extremely disappointed by the Aldi closure, their outlook remains optimistic.

“We just keep on pushing,” said Swanson. “We don’t let it slow us down. We’re still trying to better our neighborhood.”

Melissa Renee Perry is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter @itsMelissaRenee.