Living In A Food Desert In South Shore

Dominick’s vacant site
The former Dominick’s on 71st Street in South Shore. It’s been closed since December 2013. Eric Allix Rogers / Flickr
Dominick’s vacant site
The former Dominick’s on 71st Street in South Shore. It’s been closed since December 2013. Eric Allix Rogers / Flickr

Living In A Food Desert In South Shore

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About 14,000 South Shore residents have lived in a food desert for the past five years, with little access to fresh food and healthy groceries. That will finally change once a full-service grocery comes to the neighborhood in the fall.

Shop and Save, a local grocery chain based in Niles, has finalized a deal to buy the Jeffrey Plaza shopping center at 71st Street and Jeffrey Boulevard. The 64,000-square-foot store is the last vacant Dominick’s site and has been empty since late 2013, after the Chicago-area grocery chain shuttered its doors.

Morning Shift talks with a panel of South Shore residents and community leaders about what the new store will mean for the neighborhood.

What has it been like living without a major grocery store in South Shore?

Tammy: These last five years have been really trying. It’s been really trying on the community. The location has kind of deteriorated in many ways. 

Jenn White: How have you managed for these past five years, Ayana?

Ayana Contreras: I have a car, and it’s still a saga. I think a lot of press about this is around people saying, “I have to get in my car and drive to a store.” But there’s still a percentage of people who don’t have cars … And I end up having to go to multiple stores in order to get what I need and going way farther than maybe I should have to.

South Shore residents felt left behind after Dominick’s closing in 2013

Tammy: No one really knew what the backstory was with Mariano’s taking over many of their locations, that they had been having challenges. I think we also felt really surprised that the powers that be, who I’m sure had this information before it became public to us, had not planned a smooth transition for someone else to take over, that they would allow such a large space — this is really the nucleus of the community -— be left without any type of store whatsoever. 

White: Ayana, are you surprised it took this long?

Contreras: No, but I’m saddened. I was covering this back when I was producing The Barber Shop Show. We covered it for years. And every year or so, we would almost have something happening and almost a letter of intent. So now we have a letter of intent from Shop and Save, but still I don’t think a contract has been signed. So, I’m sort of warily happy.

Tammy: … as a community we had no idea that the city was dealing with an extremely difficult seller, as the commissioner stated. And I wish there had been more transparency because I really feel like we, as the community, knowing that, would’ve absolutely tried to lend our voice to let the owner know that we want and need something, and that he needs to be cooperative. And for a long time, I believe many of us felt left out and nobody cared about us.

On the process of getting Shop and Save

Val Free: Our organization pretty much kicked off the campaign to bring awareness to the fact that we were going to be a food desert, and we also wanted to make sure we had affordable healthy food options in our community … so I think it’s a good move forward. I think what’ll happen is that you’ll see other grocery stores pop up, because at one time South Shore had seven grocery stores. And now, we pretty much have three. 

White: Tonya, in talking to community members about what life has been like over the past few years without having a grocery store … what have you been hearing from them?

Tonya Trice: It definitely has been challenging for people in the community, and especially our seniors, not having a grocery store where they could get fresh produce and fresh meat. But, the community did not want to just settle for anything. We have had other options for other grocers to come in and the community flat out rejected them. We wanted a quality grocery store, and they were willing to wait for that.

White: When you talk about some of the other options that were presented, things that the community didn’t feel good about, can you give us a few examples?

Trice: Early on, there was a concept that was proposed to the South Shore community. The concept was the food would come down off a conveyor belt. They would not accept cash in the store. You had to go in and purchase some debit card of some sort in order to purchase your items … and the community flat out rejected it. We want the same shopping experience that you get in other communities. We want to go in and feel and touch, and have labels that we recognize.

Shop and Save promises fresh groceries, high-end products

Trice: One thing that I would like to make clear to everyone listening: Shop and Save is not Save-A-Lot … We’ve met with the grocers personally and we have told them what we would like to see in our grocery store — and they are promising high-end products. They are promising fresh fruits, produce. They are promising a wine bar. So, this is kind of a hybrid, in my opinion, of a Mariano’s and a Jewel.

White: Val, you wanted to jump in here?

Free: One of the things that we did when we first kicked off the grocery store campaign in 2013, we surveyed over 700 people in the community to find out what type of grocery store they wanted. And there were different ones. The top model was a Jewel. However, as we began to do the check-off list of what was doable, it narrowed down to a Mariano’s or a Whole Foods. However, Mariano’s rejected South Shore, Whole Foods rejected South Shore, Peets rejected South shore for different reasons. But, at the end of the day, if we could get a grocery store we could have where we have a voice in terms of its model and … it’s successful, then we win. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click play to hear the full conversation.

GUESTS: Tammy, South Shore resident

Ayana Contreras, Sound Opinions producer, host of Reclaimed Soul on our sister station Vocalo, South Shore resident 

Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce

Val Free with The Neighborhood Network Alliance

LEARN MORE: Last vacant Dominick’s site in Chicago finds a tenant, bringing a grocery store to South Shore food desert (Chicago Tribune 2/11/19)

Billions Of Dollars For The North Side, Not Even A Grocery Store For South Shore (Sun-Times Letter-To-The-Editor 2/1/19)

What Happened To Mariano’s? (South Side Weekly 11/30/16)