Part 2
Nourishing Solutions: Addressing Food Deserts in Chicago
By Kai EL' Zabar


he city known for its big shoulders and bustling urban population has long struggled with the problem of food deserts, which occupy vast stretches of the Windy City's 77 community areas. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chicago ranks high nationally for the number of food deserts within its municipal boundaries, with around

he city known for its big shoulders and bustling urban population has long struggled with the problem of food deserts,

384,000 Chicagoans, including 127,000 children,living in areas classified as food deserts. This burden exacerbates health disparities, contributing to higher rates of diet-related illnesses within these communities, alongside high unemployment, low income, and a myriad of other challenges that hinder community progress. Until this issue is managed and corrected, children will continue growing up hungry and without sufficient access to healthy food.

As previously established in Part 1, several factors contribute to the prevalence of food deserts in Chicago, including historical disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, economic challenges, and transportation barriers. Addressing these issues is essential to creating communities that can thrive.

which occupy vast stretches of the Windy City's 77 community areas. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chicago ranks high nationally for the number of food deserts within its municipal boundaries, with around 384,000 Chicagoans, including 127,000 children,living in areas classified as food deserts. This burden exacerbates health disparities, contributing to higher rates of diet-related illnesses within these communities, alongside high unemployment, low income, and a myriad of other challenges that hinder community progress. Until this issue is managed and corrected, children will continue growing up hungry and without sufficient access to healthy food.

As previously established in Part 1, several factors contribute to the prevalence of food deserts in Chicago, including historical disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, economic challenges, and transportation barriers. Addressing these issues is essential to creating communities that can thrive.

Current Solutions in Action:

1. Mobile Markets and Food Trucks

Some organizations have introduced mobile markets and food trucks equipped with fresh produce to bring nutritious options directly to underserved communities. These initiatives help overcome transportation barriers and provide residents with convenient access to healthy food. 

Charmaine Rickette, CEO of Uncle Remus Chicken,added a food truck to her business to increase their customer base and reach those who lack access to food. She recognized that access isn’t limited to grocery stores and fresh produce but extends to people who want good food within walking distance in their community. "Having the truck gives me the opportunity to go into communities that suffer food scarcity," she said,"and make food accessible." 

For the past three years, her food truck business has been so successful that she is considering adding another truck or two. Rickette attributes part of their success to brand recognition and location.  
"People are familiar with our food, service, and cost," she said. However, she acknowledges that food retail or wholesale is expensive, which explains why stores leave certain communities without replacements.

“Even a food truck is an arduous task, and it’s seasonal," Rickette said. "It's an expensive investment to start somany [people] bypass that process." 

Elizabeth Abunaw, the founder, and CEO of Forty Acres Fresh Market started her journey with a pop-up fresh food market. She was inspired by a visit to Chicago’s West Side, where she first noticed the lack of essential services. “I found myself in a situation on Chicago Avenue, which is a commercial corridor, and I couldn’t find banking, I couldn't find a pharmacy, I could not find a grocery store," she said. "It just never occurred to me that I could go somewhere in a city like Chicago, and that wouldn't be easy to do, especially on a commercial corridor."

Liz founded Forty Acres Fresh Market in 2017 in response to the lack of fresh food options on Chicago's West Side and launched its first pop-up market in 2018. Today, Forty Acres Fresh Market provides food delivery services in response to Covid-19. In 2023, they began a 21-week market season at the Austin Town hall City Market. Abunaw's goal was to create a Fresh Market Garden experience, collaborating with chefs, cooks, bakers, and food businesses to set up booths at the pop-up marketplaces.

Regarding purchasing produce, Abunaw notes that Chicago has one of the best and most robust wholesale markets for fresh produce in the country. She said Chicago's infrastructure makes it a central hub for produce distribution, accessible even to smaller grocers like her who don't require large minimum orders typical of other wholesalers.

"All roads lead to Chicago," she said. "It is the nexus, it's the artery, it is the heart of the produce market in the country." Currently, Abunaw is building a permanent grocery store which has always been her "North Star," driving her business development.

"If you look at some of Chicago's independent grocers, you learn that they didn't start out where they are," she said.  Her vision was to "start with an end goal, build a customer base and from that build a grocery store. Her vision is under  construction and 70% complete.

2. Community Gardens and Urban Farming

Community gardens and urban farming initiatives may be among the most debated solutions due to the current laws governing them and the need for gardening know-how and farming skills. However, they empower residents to grow their own fruits and vegetables, promoting food sovereignty and reducing reliance on distant grocery stores.  Currently, there are nearly 70 community gardens spread throughout Chicago’s parks, as well as hundreds more privately run gardens. Organizations like Growing Power and NeighborSpace support these efforts, fostering community engagement and sustainable food production.

How successful have gardens been?

Among the many crops produced by Chicago community gardens, 20 stood out as yielding the highest poundage, according to a research study "Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement." Mapping these 20 crops onto Chicago’s 77 community areas spatially revealed the cultural and economic importance of crops across neighborhoods with diversed emographics, according to the case study’s authors.  

For example, more than 5,000 pounds of collard greens were produced in the South Side neighborhood of Washington Heights, a neighborhood populated by over 95 percent Black or African American residents,most of which was classified in research studies as a food desert. Community gardens thus provided this neighborhood with access to a locally desired crop.

The label “food desert” or food scarcity, as well as what others describe as “supermarket redlining,” was attributed to many South Side and West Side Chicago neighborhoods by the early 2000s, due to their lack of full-service grocery markets. The food desert label excluded decades of growth of community gardeners, who presented food assets in their neighborhoods. The inclusion of the majority of the 260 community gardens researched in the study located on the South and West Sides of Chicago reveals that food scarcity is not limited to grocery stores. 

Nathan McClintock describes this urban growing movement as having an “emancipatory role,” blending ecological stewardship with social justice. The author encourages understanding community gardeners in segregated cities like Chicago through their own agency and diverse reasons for producing food. This study emerged out of an effort to highlight the importance of community gardens, especially for Chicago neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food.

It's clear that there is more than one system by which to evaluate what makes a community garden successful. Accordingly, author Laura Lawson states in her book “City Bountiful” that “the dominant narrative tends to link community gardens to community food security but given the numerous reasons people state for why they garden, food security should not be the only measure of success.”  

The significant harvest and nutritional yield from Chicago gardens dispel the popular perception that community gardens do not produce enough food to make a difference; in fact, they do. 

In summary, this study supports that community gardens “count” both at neighborhood and city levels in building greater food security. Advocates dare to conclude that community gardens support self-governance, self-determination, neighborhood beautification, and caring for neighbors. They remind us that "building sustainable food-producing communities requires an approach that goes far beyond applying mythological knowledge."

In racially segregated cities like Chicago, community gardens represent a grassroots response to the insufficient availability and increasing cost of fresh food in a changing global economy and environment. People who work in gardens can be hindered, however, by their other basic needs like income, medical insurance, safety, and the daily struggle to survive.

Reducing the costs of gardening and making community gardening as easy as possible is thus a valuable investment in public health. Prioritizing community gardens in urban planning, policymaking, and development ensures that these spaces count and will lead to the development of more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable food systems that are less reliant on importing food to feed cities.

3. Corner Store Initiatives

Collaborative efforts between local governments, nonprofits, and corner store owners aim to transform small convenience stores into hubs of healthy food access but remain a work in progress in Chicago. While initiatives like Chicago's "Healthy Corner Store" aim to transform these stores into sources of healthy food in food deserts, their effectiveness may be influenced by challenges such as limited resources, competition from larger grocery chains, and consumer preferences. 

Evaluating the success of corner stores in addressing food scarcity would also require assessing factors such as the availability, affordability, and quality of healthy options, as well as their impact on community health outcomes. Ongoing support, resources, and partnerships from both public and private sectors are essential for sustaining and enhancing the effectiveness of these initiatives over time.

Melody Winston, a senior executive at Living Fresh Market, is in a unique position to change the status quo. As major chains vanish from communities, leaving behind empty storefronts, she is transforming the Black community's food experience.  Winston took decisive action to address food access challenges in surrounding communities. Following the departure of Ultra Foods, Winston encouraged the Leamington Group to occupy the supermarket's space, in collaboration with Living Word Christian Center.

Reflecting on the impact of COVID-19, Winston shared, "After the pandemic hit, our team decided to assume ownership of Living Fresh Market in October 2021."  Despite their store's location outside a food desert, Winston actively engages with neighboring villages like Maywood and Bellwood, recognizing their food insecurity issues. They have identified potential grocery store locations and collaborate closely with local officials like the mayor and Alderman Stephanie Coleman to address community needs, particularly after the closure of Whole Foods in Englewood.

Winston's vision extends beyond individual stores. She explained, "We’re processing what role we will assume-as a wholesaler to supply smaller stores or as a grocery chain, bridging the gap inaccess to wholesalers for the community." This approach is rooted in Winston's commitment to empowering smaller businesses and supporting community development. 

During the pandemic, Winston's team prioritized community engagement by distributing free food and groceries, which not only helped those in need but also strengthened brand awareness. Looking ahead,Winston aims to revolutionize the grocery store experience by tailoring it to community preferences including monthly events and initiatives. 

She values direct engagement with community members, including recent conversations with young Black males about their foodpreferences, underscoring the importance of community-centered initiatives fordriving positive change. 

Winston's ultimate goal is ambitious: "Weplan to open at least 10 stores, empowering entrepreneurs to serve their Black and brown communities."

4. Independent Food Giveaways

Food distribution events organized by churches, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and other organizations play a crucial role in addressing food insecurity among Chicago’s food desert population. Here’s how they help:

Immediate Relief: These food giveaways provide immediate relief to individuals and families experiencing food insecurity by offering free or low-cost food items. This helps alleviate hunger and ensures that people have access to nutritious food, even if they are unable to afford it.

Supplemental Support: For residents living in food deserts, where access to affordable and healthy food options may be limited, food giveaways serve as a supplemental source of nutrition. They complement existing food assistance programs and help fill gaps in access to fresh produce and other essential items.

Community Support: Food giveaways often foster a sense of community support and solidarity, bringing together volunteers, donors, and recipients in a shared effort to combat hunger. This sense of community can help reduce social isolation and build stronger neighborhood connections.

Awareness and Education: Many food giveaways include educational components, such as nutrition workshops or cooking demonstrations, to promote healthy eating habits and empower individuals to make nutritious choices with the food they receive.

Advocacy and Outreach: Organizations involved in food giveaways often advocate for policies and initiatives that address the root causes of food insecurity, including poverty, inequality, and lack of access to resources. They may also engage in outreach efforts to raise awareness about hunger and mobilize support for long-term solutions.

Overall, independent food giveaways play a vital role in providing immediate relief, supplemental support, community engagement, and advocacy for Chicago’s food desert population. While they address the immediate needs of residents, they also contribute to broader efforts to create a more equitable and sustainable food system.

Vic Mensa, a socially conscious rap artist, cannabis entrepreneur and creative, shares why he began his food giveaway endeavors, “I believe that access to food should be a basic human right, especially in a wealthy society like ours where there is so much food and waste. People deserve to have food. To maintain a perspective, to have gratitude to be able to provide for people in need is based on my belief in universal connectivity.  When you take the time and put energy into helping others, it's, like a deposit in the bank of the Divine.

This realization prompted him to serve the community during the pandemic’s end phase. His non-profit organization Feed the Block provided more than 100,000 pounds of food and winter supplies throughout food deserts across Chicago’s Southside, in partnership with Delta, a Black-owned restaurant.  Recently, he teamed up with Cedars, Tandoor Char House, and others local restaurants for a "Feed The People" food giveaway.  Partnering with his cannabis brand 93 Boyz, together they distributed 1,000 hot meals on April 2, and he promises to do more of the same in the future.

5. Advocacy

Chicago advocacy groups and policymakers are pushing for systemic change through zoning laws, incentives for grocery store development in underserved areas, and increased funding for nutrition programs. In September 2023, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced a partnership with the Economic Security Project (ESP) to begin a pathway towards opening a municipally owned grocery store in Chicago. The ESP, a national non-profit dedicated to building economic power for all Americans, will provide technical assistance in determining the pathway to the first municipally owned grocery store in Chicago.

Chicago can take advantage of the Illinois Governor’s office which joined food justice advocates and announced a new grant program from the Illinois  Grocery Initiative which will offer competitive grants to encourage the  establishment of new grocery stores in USDA defined food deserts. The Governor’s office  joined food justice advocates Paired  with the Equipment Upgrades Program, the initiatives  are a $20 million effort to address food deserts and prevent grocery store closures throughout Illinois.

Visible advocacy efforts to address food deserts and promote food access have emerged from policymakers, most of which are discussed here:Fresh Food Access Programs: Implemented to increase access to fresh and healthy foods in underserved areas. These programs may include financial incentives for grocery stores to open or expand in food desert areas.

Urban Agriculture Ordinances: Chicago has adopted ordinances to support urban agriculture, such as community gardens and urban farms. Incentives such as subsidies or grants for store owners to carry fresh produce have shown promise.

Healthy Corner Store Initiative: This initiative works to transform small corner stores in underserved neighborhoods into sources of healthy food by providing technical assistance, marketing support, and financial incentives.

Mobile Markets: Mobile markets or food truck licensing help to bring fresh produce and other healthy foods directly to communities lacking access to grocery stores.

Zoning Policies: Zoning policies may be used to encourage grocery stores to locate in food desert areas by offering incentives or streamlining the permitting process.

6. Community Engagement

The city collaborates with community organizations and residents to develop tailored solutions to address food access issues in specific neighborhoods. In this area, Chicago is making progress, but it is not easy.

Community organizations like the Greater Chicago Food Depository partners with the Illinois Department of Human Services to provide nutrition and health support to low-income women, infants, and young children. Despite the strong and lasting benefits of program participation, only 36.3 percent of eligible Illinoisans were enrolled in program in 2021, highlighting the need for better outreach.

Former 5th Ward Alderwoman Leslie Hairston initiated and devised a variety of solutions in her ward that combined policy and opportunity after her ward was the first in the city to have a major grocery store close.

Dominick's departure in 2014, "created a void from 35th and Cottage Grove to King Drive all the way to 95th—a stretch of 60 blocks with no grocery store," she said.

The former alderwoman observed this while driving through her ward and the city, seeking different grocery store options to replace Dominick's. Fortunately, a new Jewel grocery store was built at 75th Street and Stony Island Avenue, which remains to this day. However, the next grocery store was at twenty blocks away, leaving South Shore in the grips of food scarcity as more independently owned grocery stores closed.

Hairston recounts her efforts to provide a proper grocery market to recover from the loss. She was able to persuade Trader Joe's to move into Hyde Park's COOP space (which closed after Dominick's). She says, “Following that success, she worked with a couple that owned six grocery stores, but none on the South Side. After about a year of discussions, Hairston convinced them to open a grocery store in South Shore on 71st Street.

The former alderman's innovative thinking extended the opportunity by working with the owners to establish "Local Market, South Shore." She suggested that such a move would allow them to expand into other areas, like "Local Market, Chatham," and "Local Market, Greater Grand Crossing," as full-service grocery stores.

Committed to her residents, she engaged with the absentee grocery mall owner, whose prohibitively high rents had made it difficult to find lessees. She found herself traveling to Los Angeles and New York at her own expense to converse with the mall owner, potential lessees, and funders.

Fortunately, her ward's grocery store was in a TIF district created just before she took office. She says, "Having that kind of infrastructure in place is necessary for success. So, when the grocers needed a subsidy, I was able to use those dollars to acquire the shopping center."

"Initially, it was a hard sell because people didn't believe we were in a food desert," she said. "They didn't realize we had one grocery store for every 30,000 people, while some suburbs had 11 grocery stores for every 30,000 residents."

7. Local Policy

Advocating for policy changes at the local and state levels to address underlying issues contributing to food deserts, such as zoning regulations and economic development policies, is essential. The following are just a few examples of policies, and the city’s efforts may evolve over time in response to changing needs and priorities.

Chicago has implemented several policy changes aimed at addressing the underlying issues contributing to food deserts and food insecurity. Some of these changes include:

Urban Agriculture Ordinances: revised zoning laws to support urban agriculture, making it easier for residents and organizations to establish community gardens and urban farms, thereby increasing access to fresh produce in underserved areas.

Healthy Food Financing Initiatives: The city has implemented programs to incentivize grocery stores and food retailers to locate in food desert areas. These initiatives may include tax incentives, grants, or loans to encourage investment in underserved neighborhoods.

Corner Store Transformation Programs: retailers offer nutritious foods to their communities. These programs provide technical assistance, marketing support, and financial incentives to help small grocers.

Mobile Markets and Food Trucks: The city supports mobile markets and food trucks that bring fresh produce and other healthy foods directly to neighborhoods lacking access to grocery stores bridging the gap in food access by providing convenient options for residents.

Community Engagement and Empowerment: Chicago prioritizes community engagement and empowerment in its efforts to address food insecurity. The city collaborates with residents, community organizations, and stakeholders to develop and implement solutions tailored to the specific needs of each neighborhood.

These policy changes reflect a comprehensive approach to tackling the underlying issues that contribute to food deserts and food insecurity in Chicago. By addressing factors such as access, affordability, and quality of food options, the city aims to improve food access and promote health equity for all residents.

8. Federal Policy

Currently, the U.S. House of Representative is considering the Food Deserts Act, which would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to provide grants to states to support the establishment and operation of grocery stores in underserved communities, among other provisions.

CNW spoke with Congressman Danny Davis, who serves on the Agricultural Committee and is a proponent of the bill. He emphasized that the bill is necessary because, "Addressing our food deserts is crucial for promoting better health outcomes for all members of society." Davis's position highlights that food deserts are not solely a concern for states or cities but rather a national problem that needs to be addressed on a larger scale.

CNW recognizes that collaboration among government agencies, community organizations, businesses, and residents is essential to effectively implement and sustain these solutions.

9. Technological Solutions

According to Food Studies: Matter, Meaning, Movement Case: Community Gardens, Chicago’s decentralized approach to food insecurity has prevented  coordination of vision, clear leadership, and the establishment of a cohesive plan. Chicago needs a plan for ending the prevalent food scarcity by 2030 that applies the issues and concerns that have been identified after application of the many solutions described above -- what policies work, what doesn’t, and how to implement and evaluate them.

One possibility is to use mobile texting to ask residents about their access to food on a regular basis and use this data to determine the distinct needs of different community areas. The city should then make these data publicly available to ensure transparency around who goes hungry and who stays well-fed.

The Way Forward

Food deserts represent a complex challenge in Chicago, but they are not insurmountable. Through a combination of community-driven initiatives, policy changes, and innovative solutions, progress is being made to ensure all residents have access to the nourishing food they need to thrive. By addressing the underlying issues of inequality and investing in sustainable solutions, we can create a healthier, more equitable food landscape for generations to come.

Addressing the food desert crisis in Chicago, Illinois requires a multi-faceted approach by expanding collaboration among government agencies, community organizations, businesses, and residents as essential to implement and sustain these solutions effectively.

This article is part of the Segregation Reporting Project, made possible by a grant from Healing Illinois, an initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Field Foundation of Illinois that seeks to advance racial healing through storytelling and community collaborations. The project is inspired by “Shame of Chicago, Shame of a Nation,” a new documentary that addresses the untold legacy of Chicago’s systemic segregation. Managed by Public Narrative, this endeavor enlisted five local media outlets to produce impactful news coverage on segregation in Chicago while maintaining editorial independence.

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