The Experimental Grocer

Grand Crossing is parched. However, an oasis stands among dilapidated businesses and a motel that still proudly proclaims color TV. Louis’ Groceries is ready to flood the sprawling South Side food desert with health food, washing urban food problems away one purchase at a time.

Louis’ Groceries has three main goals in its project to irrigate Chicago’s largest food desert. As a non-profit, these aims are the bread and butter of Louis’ existence. The first in the trinity is to provide the community with fresh fruits and vegetables; the second to search for a viable and sustainable business model for a local grocery store; and the third to study economic incentives that may be effective in changing people’s purchasing and eating habits.

Terri Zhu is the program director of Louis’ Groceries. She wears a “Louis’ Groceries” apron and stands proudly behind a stainless steel kitchen counter. The low, thundering hum of industrial refrigerators surrounds the combination demo kitchen, classroom, and community center that aims to change how people think about food.

“The problem with food desert initiatives is that they’re supply-focused. The idea is that ‘Oh, we just need to bring fresh foods and vegetables into this area and people will just start eating stuff overnight.’ It’s really not the case,” says Zhu.

Partnered with the UofC and University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, the non-profit investigates different methods of incentivizing healthy food choices. Depending on the day, 50-75% of sales come from food stamp purchases, an indicator of the lower income patrons who inhabit this portion of the South Side. One of Louis’ first economic experiments is a simple side-by-side comparison of consumer options. The first step into the compact space confronts  patrons with a Coca-Cola machine and a rack of Frito-Lay chips standing across from an abundance of bunched vegetables and an assortment of fruit.

“The basic idea is of choice…the consumer has full access to everything. And through whatever incentives, we want you to choose the healthier items. It’s not about taking away junk food, it’s about encouraging people to make healthy choices,” says Zhu.

Louis’ Groceries intends to change the game of food desert policy. With some time, the group hopes that the data collected from a growing base of customers and economic experiments will shift the approaches to a more efficient and permanent solutions. For now, an apple a day will suffice.