Unlikely Oases

Claire Hungerford & Verbonkos/flickr

[nggallery id=18]

The battle is over. A war has been won. So announced Mari Gallagher, the social scientist whose landmark 2006 report on food access in Chicago coined the term “food desert.”

Gallagher defines a food desert simply as “a large geographic area with no or distant grocery stores.” But in recent years, the word has taken on a particular meaning, wrapped in the image of a poor, urban area where residents must travel for miles just to find a few vegetables. Residents of a food desert may have access to plenty of junk food, but they have almost no nearby access to food that is high-quality, healthy, and–above all–affordable. As a result, they are far more at risk for diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

While food deserts remain a persistent problem in Chicago, the reality is not as grim as it seems. Gallagher’s latest report, released last month, contained a heartening and perhaps unexpected message: “As we mark the fifth year of our original report’s release, we realized it was time to retire the Food Desert awareness campaign. We feel the awareness war has been won, as evidenced by this week’s arrival of our nation’s First Lady.”

Gallagher and her research team are referring to Michelle Obama’s visit to Chicago’s “food summit” on October 25. Mayor Rahm Emanuel gathered up the First Lady, local urban farmers, grocery store CEOs and eight mayors from across the country to convene and discuss the problem of urban food deserts. The summit coincided with news that Chicago’s food desert has shrunk by 40 percent in the last five years. With so much attention from major politicians, it’s easy to believe that the first step in the fight against food deserts–raising awareness–has been won. But now that the food desert issue has come to the fore and the preliminary actions seem to be working, where does Chicago go from here?

The First Lady visited two very different locations on October 25: a newly expanded Walgreens on 75th Street and an urban farm in Bridgeport. At the Walgreens, she stood at a podium in front of the drug store’s new produce section and spoke to an audience of local, national, and corporate leaders on the issue of food access in poverty-stricken areas. Obama, whom the Chicago Sun-Times calls “the country’s most recognizable symbol of healthy living,” went on to visit the Iron Street Urban Farm for a tour of the facilities, but not before Rahm Emanuel, the man who invited her to the food summit, had some important announcements to make.

He declared that 17 new grocery stores would open in Chicago, and 19 Walgreens would expand to include a produce section. Most of the stores will be on the city’s South and West Sides, in areas like North Lawndale, West Pullman, Englewood, Bronzeville and Roseland. Walgreens claims that it will provide around 600 new jobs for the city in the next two years.

Why does the definition of a food desert center around the grocery store, and why was the opening of new grocery stores announced with such flourish? Large chain grocers can sell fresh produce at cheaper prices and higher quantities than local corner stores. High poverty rates are a major feature of food deserts–the USDA’s definition of food desert even includes a specification that at least 20 percent of the population must be under the poverty line. And while there may be many local corner stores in a food desert, these small shops are better equipped to sell highly-processed food with a long shelf life than produce, milk or meat, which all need to be sold and restocked quickly before they spoil.

What makes matters worse is that many shops that accept food stamp benefits are exactly these kinds of corner stores. There are 2,200 stores that accept food stamps in Chicago, but according to a 2010 WBEZ investigation, 30 percent of them are not grocers, but rather liquor stores, gas stations, a­­nd dollar stores. That means that those who can least afford the high costs of diseases connected to poor diet are also those who can only afford to shop at stores that stock unhealthier food.

The well-publicized meeting on October 25 was not the mayor’s first mention of the food desert problem, although it might be his most high-profile food access event to date. In June, one month after his inauguration, Emanuel convened six CEOs from companies like Walmart, Walgreens, and Save-a-Lot for his first food summit, a candid talk about why there weren’t more grocery stores in underserved communities, and how there could be.

Emanuel showed the CEOs a map of the city’s food deserts, studded with stars that represented “sites for food retail opportunity.” Concerns over the prospect of opening up new grocery stores included, “lack of transportation, security, real estate development and bureaucratic red tape,” according to a press release from the mayor’s office. Emanuel offered to fast-track permits, zoning, and licensing procedures for developments in designated food deserts. He said that if a company wanted to open multiple stores at the same time, they would only have to submit one general zoning request rather than one per store.

Emanuel’s strategy is clear: he can’t force corporations to open new grocery stores in food deserts, but he can give them incentives so that it’s worth their investment.

He sees his solution as a compromise that will allow both the mayor and the corporations to align their bottom lines, so that the stores will turn a profit and the city will see an increase in healthy food options.

“Although it’s morally motivating for me, they’re not in the moral business,” he said on a WBEZ radio program. “As one CEO said to me and I won’t say who, ‘Look, if you want to grandstand I’ll write you a check and I’ll be done with it.’ I said that’s not what I want. I want you to open open stores that serve people, create jobs and make money. I want you to make money.”

However, more will open up in the city than just Save-a-Lots and expanded Walgreens: the city has also taken steps to support urban agriculture. Kraft and Safeway agreed to commit $150,000 to pilot up to five new farmers markets in Chicago’s west side over the next two years, and Growing Power, the organization that runs the Iron Street Urban Farm, signed a memorandum of understanding with Walgreens and Aldi that will hopefully lead to locally-grown produce being sold in those stores.

Most significantly, in September, a new city ordinance passed that officially legitimizes urban farms in the zoning code. It eliminated many of the obstacles that large, commercial urban farms faced in order to grow their business. The ordinance increased the size limit on community gardens to 25,000 square feet, relaxed fencing and parking regulations, granted some produce sales in residential areas, and allowed the installation of hydroponic and aquaponic systems, as well as honey bees.

By promoting an increase in both grocery store chains and farmers markets in food desert areas, Emanuel has pushed together two very unlikely companions: major grocery store and pharmacy chains and urban farms. One operates on a huge scale and is profit-driven, while the other is hyper-local and propeled in large part by visions of social change. The two sides may be opposite in terms of aims and motivation, but for once, CEOs and CSAs are on the same team.

Just a month after the new city ordinance passed, on October 14, the first urban farm officially zoned as such opened in Englewood. Honore Street Farm, on the eponymous street between 58th and 59th streets, is still just a bare concrete lot, but as the first farm to open after the new ordinance, it represents a new beginning for urban farming.

The farm is part of Growing Home, an organization that provides transitional employment and job training to people whose trouble pasts make it difficult for them to find a job. Growing Home runs three certified organic farms in addition to the Honore Street site: Les Brown Memorial Farm in Marseilles, Illinois; Su Casa Market Garden in Back of the Yards; and the Wood Street Urban Farm, close to the Honore Street Farm in Englewood.

According to Harry Rhodes, executive director of Growing Home, setting up urban farms was not always easy. Wood Street Farm, for example, had to be zoned as a technical institute. “We had a lot of obligations that made getting the farm up and running difficult, including parking places, landscaping, and fencing,” he says over the phone. “This ordinance makes it easier and lessens the burden.”

Now urban farms can worry less if a new administration comes in that doesn’t care about urban agriculture, says Seneca Kern, the Community Outreach Organizer for Growing Home. “It’s not at their whim,” he says, “It’s in the books.”

I meet Kern in his job-training classroom at the Wood Street Farm. Founded in 2005, Wood Street is in the middle of a highly residential neighborhood. Houses line up block after block, and out of nowhere a patch of green appears, spanning two-thirds of an acre, surrounded by a chain-link fence. Inside, the hoophouses are filled with vibrant green lettuce and jewel-bright rainbow chard.

The visit to the Wood Street farm underscores what makes grocery stores and urban farms different in their approach and contributions to food access. Urban agriculture is very much rooted in its neighborhood, while many of these corporations have are headquartered outside of Chicago. Grocery stores and urban farms both provide jobs, but the farms organize educational events and community activism. The farm runs a market and holds movie nights, potlucks, cooking demos, tours to get people engaged.

“We see a lot of kids who come just to spend time here,” Kern says. “This is a real, direct solution.”

Kern himself was born in Englewood, and he remembers hating the wilted, sad little vegetables at the corner stores. So his grandmother, who grew up in Mississippi, would drive her grandkids all the way to Indiana to pick fruit straight off the vine.

“A lot of Southern folks did that,” Kern recalls. “I vividly remember it. My favorite was the grapes.”

But Kern’s take on Englewood’s food desert is unique. First of all, he says don’t call it a food desert. As Kern points out, it’s more of a “food swamp.”

“There’s food here,” he shrugs, “it’s just shitty.”

A quick tour of the area surrounding the Wood Street Farm perfectly illustrates his point. Just a short walk away from Wood Street is a corner store, with a big yellow sign in front that says it accepts LINK, the Illinois state food stamp card. A row of cereal boxes, as brightly colored and eye-catching as the rainbow chard on Wood Street, greets shoppers as soon as they come in. The aisles are filled with canned food, candy, soda, and the like. As for the produce offerings are concerned, the pickings are slim: one box of onions and a few potatoes, hidden in the corner.

Grocery stores isn’t a cure-all, Kern notes. As a kid, Kern didn’t mind the long drive to Indiana; for him, quality matters above convenience, and so he’s skeptical about how much Walmart and Walgreens can help.

“The grocery store can be just a bigger corner store,” he says. Even if the food desert completely disappeared according to the official statistics, there there would be, he thinks, “the same amount of crap food, but maybe it would be easier to get it. Sure, they could have a big parade and say food deserts are gone, but it wouldn’t be true.”

Corporate grocery stores are vital to increase broad access to fresh food in poor areas, many experts say, but they can’t stand alone. “They are part of the solution but not the only solution,” Rhodes acknowledges. A more holistic approach would include backyard gardens, community gardens, farm stands, and more. He also suggested that the mayor’s office should create a position for a food system and enterprise coordinator. Instead of running around different departments within the City Hall to try and find answers to their questions about permits and regulations, they could go to just one point person.

“We’re talking about changing local economies and investing in local economies,” he says. “Putting in a grocery store won’t solve all your problems.” Nevertheless, he admits, “It would just be ignoring reality to say that they’re not going to exist.”

Laure Dutirou, a volunteer at the 61st Street Farmer’s Market in Woodlawn, commented on the relationship between grocery stores and farmer’s markets. “They are complementary, they don’t exclude each other,” she said. “Let’s face it, not everyone can afford [farmers markets], especially here…we probably should have an Aldi right at the corner.”

As Emanuel said on Windy City Live, he’s not the first politician in the country to look at the food desert problem. What makes Chicago special is not that they’re the leader in any one field, but they’re exploring options in every field.

“What will be unique for Chicago,” he said, “is that…we’re bringing farmer’s markets, urban agriculture, and grocery stores all together, which is what no one has done before.”