Miracle on 61st Street: A new farmers’ market provides an oasis in the midst of the Woodlawn food desert

Imagine a bright, summery Saturday morning in Chicago. The humidity settles uncomfortably on your skin, but temperatures still hover around the mid-70s. An empty lot stands on 61st Street between Dorchester and Blackstone Avenues. Although it’s currently littered by the occasional fast food bag, beginning Saturday, May 17, the lot will be filled with slower food: locally-grown fresh produce. The 61st Street Farmers Market will be open every Saturday from 9am to 2pm between the months of May and October. Ten to twelve vendors will sell produce grown mostly on small-scale farms in Illinois and its surrounding states. In a neighborhood that lacks easy access to affordable produce, the project of bringing the food to the neighborhood is tremendous.

In 2006, LaSalle Bank commissioned a report from the Mari Gallagher Research Group to investigate the problem of food deserts in Chicago. A food desert is an area defined by lack of ready access to grocery stores–either they aren’t there, or they’re several bus rides away. But there is another interesting aspect to the term “food desert.” Desert is both a noun and a verb, as researcher George Kaplan points out in the foreword of the report. Food deserts are often the products of large-scale supermarkets deserting impoverished neighborhoods as a viable place to do business. People in these neighborhoods know how much it hurts. Benjamin Murphy, who works with a community garden in Woodlawn, felt the pain a few months ago. “Recently when the Co-op shut down and Treasure Island hadn’t opened yet, there wasn’t a grocery store close by for me,” says Murphy. “I’m saying that as someone who can hop in my vehicle and scoot a half mile away.”

Frustrated with this trend, community organizations are increasingly creating oases in food deserts. The Experimental Station, located at 61st Street and Blackstone Avenue, refuses to desert Woodlawn. Through help from volunteers and community organizations, along with farmers from the Midwest, they are bringing a farmers’ market full of fresh produce and locally processed foods at affordable prices to the residents of Woodlawn.

The statistics speak for themselves. Instances of diet-related health problems like hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol are higher for neighborhoods classified as food deserts. But just walking through Woodlawn is enough to see where the problem lies. Heading south on Cottage Grove Avenue, the few places to get food are Harold’s Chicken Shack, a carry-out fast food mart, and a Citgo. Turning east on 67th Street, it takes several blocks before a grocery store appears, and the store looks tired and beaten. A few cars sit in the parking lot, and fluorescent lights shine through the bars on the windows. McDonald’s wrappers litter empty lots, and discarded 44-oz. soda cups from gas stations cling to chain-link fences. The litter is the literal detritus of a structural inequity in the inner-city neighborhoods: people are often closer to a fast food restaurant than they are to a grocery store.

“The problem with food deserts isn’t that there’s not enough food,” explains Dave Aftandilian, a lecturer in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Chicago. “The problem is the lack of affordable, high-quality, nutritious food. There are plenty of fast food choices around,” he observes. The empty lots and chain link fences contain the evidence.

Affordable, high quality, nutritious food is exactly what the farmers’ market hopes to bring the neighborhood. One of the goals is to reset the way residents of Woodlawn buy and eat food. Not only will the market bring fresh Midwestern produce at affordable prices to the area, but it plans to do so in a way that makes it accessible to as many people as possible. The market will accept the Illinois Link Card, said Aaron Schorsch, a volunteer at the Experimental Station who develops policies and guidelines for the market. The Illinois Link Card allows people on food stamp assistance to use their benefits electronically, like an ATM card. This twist on the traditional cash-only market demonstrates sensitivity to reaching as many people as possible. Schorsch, who works with the Green City Market on the North Side of Chicago, feels that using a model like Green City and transposing it onto the farmers’ market in Woodlawn can only help the 61st Street Market. Fellow Experimental Station volunteer Qaid Hassan calls Green City the “crème de la crème of farmers’ markets” and thinks implementing that model on top of a new market will bring the “wholesomeness of Green City to a neighborhood that needs it.”

Making fresh, quality produce available and affordable is a tremendous step toward relieving the problem of food deserts. But the volunteers at the Experimental Station know that it isn’t enough. Hassan emphasizes that the program will integrate education and outreach and strive to sell ingredients that are part of the food culture of the neighborhood. Volunteers will also explain how farmer’s markets work and offer demonstrations by chefs using products from the market. Another hope is to integrate curricula based around healthy food initiatives into schools.

More than a market, this is a plan to not only strengthen the existing communities in and around Woodlawn, but to build new ones. Hassan calls it the “hinge that allows things already existing to be better supported.” The Experimental Station promotes what it calls “food culture.” Food culture, which includes distribution, cultivation, preparation and appreciation, is “critical to our individual and cultural well-being,” according to the Experimental Station’s website.

Well-being and wholeness are crucial to the market, and the words the volunteers use to describe the market are positive. “You get the satisfaction of buying directly from the person who produced it, you learn about where it’s from, and you get more enjoyment out of it,” Hassan explains. “This produce will be at the peak of freshness and from a neighboring state,” he adds.

The volunteers seem idealistic and nearly wistful as they describe the larger vision of the market. “This is the way things used to be,” says Hassan, referring to the relationship between farmer, food, and consumer. “We’re reliving part of the past in order to redefine our future and support our communities,” he adds. Idealism is essential to nurture a project like the farmers’ market, in the same way that the farmers bringing produce to the market must nurture their fields. But the idealism is balanced with an important sense of realism. One of the goals, according to Schorsch, is to make the project sustainable. Sustainability is a buzzword in environmental justice circles, but for Schorsch, it really comes down to the impact and use of what is produced. “What you produce should better the land, environment, and the people around you,” he explains. But it’s also a business, and it must be financially sustainable as well. To this end, the market will depend on its patrons, as well as private donations, grants from organizations, and individual fundraising.

While the market takes on a big project and there is a lot of hope for the positive impact it will have, it is not the ultimate solution by any means. Aftandilian explains that structural inequities are really at the heart of the problem of food insecurity and food deserts. “For example, single mothers who work long hours at their jobs may not have the time or energy to cook a well-balanced, nutritious meal,” he worries. Additionally, food security would be greatly enhanced by a quality, affordable supermarket in the area. Since a farmer’s market depends on the availability of local produce, it is seasonal. Residents won’t have access to the market during the coldest Chicago months. This is not entirely hopeless, argues Aftandilian. “Hopefully taking the time to go to the farmers’ market will become a good habit that people can apply to taking the extra time to go out of their way to a supermarket in the winter–even if it’s a pain to take a few buses to get there,” he says.

In the end, the market brings far more possibility than problems to an area seriously deprived of access to resources many Americans take for granted. Like any community project, the farmers’ market can only be sustained by the support of the members of the community. The Experimental Station hopes to bring something to Woodlawn that its residents can be proud of and that shoppers from the North Side will bike to on a beautiful Saturday morning.

“I’m really hopeful,” says Hassan. “I hope it’s the beginning of something beautiful,” he adds with an earnest expression on his face. There’s no naiveté apparent on either of the volunteers’ faces–they know how challenging and rewarding this can be. “If this is something people want, they should shop accordingly,” Schorsch intones. “Come and make it happen.”

Cover graphic by Lisa Bang, photos by Avery Bell

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