True wealth lies in a healthy spirit and body. This truism seems to suggest that wealth is within everyone’s reach. In the United States, however, living a healthy lifestyle can seem like a luxury of the upper and upper-middle classes. Not only do the poor lack monetary wealth, they often do not have the same opportunities to eat as healthily and exercise as regularly as those with higher incomes. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the prevalence of obesity is significantly higher in poor communities than in affluent communities, and higher among African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans than Caucasians.
Chicago’s Englewood community could be described as a “food desert” due to its lack of grocery stores, particularly those that carry fresh produce. This term is usually applied to poor communities where junk food-stocking corner stores are the only source of groceries for miles. But a self-described “urban goddess, a hip hop head, an activist, and a Christian” have come up with a creative approach to a healthy food store hoping not only to eradicate the food desert, but to transform healthy living into an integral part of urban minority culture. Their project, the Graffiti and Grub market, opened on June 19 at 59th and Wentworth.
LaDonna Redmond was first confronted with the true consequences of the food desert in her West Side neighborhood 12 years ago, when she became a mother. Her son had food allergies, but she could not find healthy food for him. Soon after her initial frustration with the food desert, Redmond met Orrin Williams, an activist and the director of training at Grown Homes, an organization that works to help the homeless acquire job skills in agriculture. Williams’s knowledge inspired the beginnings of Redmond’s education in food environmentalism, sustainability, and environmental justice. Soon after, Redmond and her husband founded the Institute for Community Development, an organization dedicated to converting vacant lots into urban farm sites, setting up farmers’ markets, formulating public policy, and working with legislators to distribute local food systems to urban communities.
Redmond and Williams envisioned and began to plan a healthy food market for Chicago’s West Side very early on in their work together. But they dreamed of something they saw as very different from the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s traditions: They imagined a market that would be tailored specifically to urban neighborhoods. They have been fundraising for that vision for the past 10 years, beginning with a donation from the Kellogg Foundation and gradually collecting and investing more.
In addition to raising funds, the two activists conducted market-based community-level research on how to fit the supermarket model into urban landscapes, working with researchers at the University of Illinois, Chicago State University, Loyola University, and DePaul University. Their research revealed that the majority of people shopping at grocery stores are mothers in the age range of 18 to 35. These women constitute a large part of the so-called “hip-hop generation.” At Chicago’s African Festival of the Arts a few years ago, Redmond met William Seegars, an expert in hip-hop culture. Seegars had created a hip-hop-themed board game that he presented at the festival. The idea of a hip-hop theme fit perfectly with the idea of a specifically urban market, and the combination of Seegars’s background and Redmond’s and Williams’s knowledge and research led to the conception of Graffiti and Grub.
Redmond found another inspiration for the market in a vegan restaurant called “Gratitude,” which she discovered on a trip to Berkeley, California. The restaurant is designed around a board game and has a parlor-like atmosphere, combining healthy food with game-playing and socializing, thus melding health of body with health of spirit. Redmond immediately imagined creating a food market around Seegars’s board game, a food market with a healthy approach to urban living and sustainability.
The group recently found the space that enabled them to realize their vision. The landlord of the building at 5923 South Wentworth Avenue that formerly housed Englewood’s Good Food Market was renovating the space, and Redmond and her partners were able to lease it. They are working this summer with 150 youth from the surrounding community to put the finishing touches on the market, which opened last Friday. They have hired these young people in collaboration with the Mayor’s summer youth program and, over the course of the summer, will provide them with green job training and education in the areas of entrepreneurship, food, agriculture, environmentalism, and sustainability.
The idea that healthy living is for the wealthy only is a marketing ploy, a tool used effectively by chains such as Whole Foods, according to Redmond. She believes that, in reality, food is cheaper when it’s locally grown. Despite its current character as a status symbol, she says, there is no reason that healthy food should be limited to the rich. In working with youth and appealing to young hip-hop culture, the founders of Graffiti and Grub hope to catch a generation before it has fully ingested the notion that health is for the affluent. They want to break this notion down and replace it with the idea that healthy living is for everyone.
Environmentalism, organic food, and healthy living–these are concepts that are today often associated with white yuppie lifestyles, with people who have the money and education to care. But the Graffiti and Grub market is born of black, urban hip-hop culture. It represents the claim of poor, minority culture to what Redmond calls real wealth: “wealth of spirit, body, and health, not just wealth of the pocket book.”