Graffiti and Grub Takes on Food Deserts

Graffiti and Grub Takes on Food Deserts
Students from Southwest Youth Collaborative listen to what's ahead for them working at Graffiti and Grub. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Graffiti and Grub Takes on Food Deserts
Students from Southwest Youth Collaborative listen to what's ahead for them working at Graffiti and Grub. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)

Graffiti and Grub Takes on Food Deserts

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LaDonna Redmond is a food activist on Chicago’s West Side. Redmond’s work bringing healthy food to low-income communities has gotten her national attention. Now she’s setting her sights on the city’s South Side. Redmond is merging food and culture with a new grocery store and performance space.

LaDonna Redmond cuts an authoritative figure as she stands outside a building at 59th and Wentworth, reciting all of the things she has to do.

ambi: We’re going to do some woodchipping. Oh… I gotta go to the alderman’s office.

Opening a grocery story with healthy foods has been a dream of Redmond’s for years.

She’s named the place Graffiti and Grub. The first floor will be a grocery store this summer. The second floor – with its cherry wood floors and exposed brick – is the performance space.

The building is smack in the middle of two food desert communities: Englewood and Washington Park.

So Redmond’s emphasis is:

REDMOND: Fresh foods, fresh produce, locally grown, sustainable, organic. But we won’t necessarily use those words in that way. We’ll use those words in the way that we would organize them and they would spell S.O.U.L. – sustainable, organic, urban and local.

In her decade of food justice activism, Redmond has found that people don’t like being told what their food is. And food and language become intertwined. She says awareness around getting people to eat healthy can take on a tone of condescension.

REDMOND: They don’t want to be social serviced into healthy food. They want to be treated with respect and dignity when they go into a store. They don’t want to be treated like they’re going into the free clinic.

Redmond says that approach doesn’t work.

REDMOND: The lecture around organic food wasn’t necessary because they sort of understood the definition of organic through their own culture, which may have included farming themselves or growing up on a farm. So for them organic just really meant that’s the right way that you grow food so what’s so special about that?

A simple way to envision Redmond’s concept is a less effete Whole Foods. She has relationships with urban farmers and distributors, which she says will help her keep costs affordable for those in the area—one of the missions of this place. Stimulus dollars will help fund jobs for teens—they’ll be working at the store starting this summer and are going through orientation.

Using hip hop as a cultural framework is one of the hooks to get young people into the green movement. That’s what Redmond’s partner Will Seegars is banking on. The teens can play games and do performances in addition to their work in the store.

Seeagar’s creator of the Hip Hop Skillz board game. Seegars puts me to the test, one he’ll be offering when the place opens.

Eighteen-year-old Sharon Taylor is a student at Chicago State University. She’s wearing a lot of green today, in solidarity with the politics of this place. She decided to work here because of her own food observations.

TAYLOR: It’s kind of a shame how you can go to every other corner it’s a McDonald’s or Burger King and you can buy a meal there for five dollars or less than five dollars at that. But when you got to an organic grocery store you not only have to travel outside of your community you have to pay more for it.

Just last week the independent Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group released an updated report on Chicago’s food deserts. The report indicates some grocery stores and urban farming have put a dent in the deserts. But study author Gallagher says more work needs to be done.

GALLAGHER: We still have a great number of people living in the food desert. A little over 600,000 residents and most continue to be African Americans and African-American children.

But Gallagher says be careful of typecasting.

GALLAGHER: Not everyone in the food desert is poor. Over 13,000 Chicago food desert households, for example, make over $100,000 per year.

Those are dollars that LaDonna Redmond would like to see spent right here at Graffiti and Grub.

But there are a couple of things that Redmond says won’t be at Graffiti and Grub. No cigarettes. No lottery.