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Winter’s Approach Leaves Chicagoans in “Food Desert” Few Options

Oct. 23, 2008 – Lena Taylor came to the Englewood farmer's market for the second straight week to buy what some in her neighborhood might equate to manna from heaven — fresh produce.

"Are these organic?" Taylor asked the young farmer selling kale, cucumbers and tomatoes. They were, and as she continued to delicately clutch the cucumbers, she compared the colors of the red and yellow tomatoes.

After a little more discussion about prices, the South Side senior twisted her black handbag around her shoulder, gently unzipped it and gave the clerk a white and blue check with an Illinois Seniors Farmer's Market logo.

Taylor got the check from a neighborhood senior program. Since the market's opening June 19, some organizations like Teamwork Englewood and a local co-op that grows organic produce, Growing Home, Inc. conducted outreach to help bring business to the city-sponsored market. The market opened at noon and closed at 5 p.m.; most of the shoppers were seniors like Taylor.

The farmer's market was opened to enable more people in Englewood to buy fresh produce, but the market will close Oct. 23. When it shuts down for the year, many will lose a much-needed oasis in this "food desert."

Englewood and poor areas all over the country face what research has defined as a paradoxical situation; it's expensive to be poor. The limited access to fresh produce drives the consumption of unhealthy foods that lead to poor eating habits and that can affect the overall economic health of the family. Also, the high price of gas makes travel more difficult for poor people in a "food desert."

A 2006 study by LaSalle Bank defined many areas of the city's South and West Sides as "food deserts" because they lacked access to grocery stores that supplied fresh fruits and vegetables. The market in Englewood and other grocers in the area have brought a few more options to neighborhoods like Englewood. Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) and Mayor Richard M. Daley called for more "mainstream" grocers like Jewel or Dominick's to consider putting more stores in underdeveloped areas.

Meanwhile, as Lena Taylor placed her plastic bags of peanuts and cucumbers in her Pontiac SUV, she said the Food 4 Less, just north on Ashland, kept raising prices. Same goes for the nearby Aldi supermarket.

As for Dominick's, "It's too expensive," said Taylor.

The residents of Englewood didn't need weeks of national headlines to understand the economy was struggling.

Foulkes, a former baker at the 95th Street Jewel, and a 36-year resident of Englewood, said the closing of the farmer's market this month will leave residents — who are already hit hard by the economic downturn — even worse off. In the "food desert," many will have no access to affordable, high-quality produce.

Tracing her finger across her ward map, Foulkes talked about people who had come to depend on the church parking lot's market for fresh produce over the summer. She wondered where they would turn during the winter drought.

When she was growing up in Englewood, Foulkes said there were competing grocery stores, like Jewel, Hi-Lo and A&P. In recent years, many have relied on convenience food at small corner stores for groceries.

"It's all people," she said, explaining that most of her ward is residential. Foulkes pointed to the challenges of bringing a large commercial development into Englewood.

She pinpointed the intersections of 66th Street and Ashland Avenue and 59th Street and Ashland Avenue as difficult to develop because some neighbors might have to be relocated. Asking for a re-zoning or negotiating with an owner or landlord might bring a contentious neighborhood debate.

Yet as a former grocery store employee and someone who is trying to change her own eating habits, the "food desert" issue is one she spoke passionately about. "We do need another large grocery store in the area." Foulkes said grocers like Aldi and Food 4 Less get a lot of business and other grocers should look to those stores as proof that Englewood can support another "mainstream" store.

Growing Home Inc., a co-op that grows organic produce, has a long-term vision for making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to Englewood. Growing Home's Executive Director Harry Rhodes said, "What people need is a choice of where to get their food."

Rhodes said Mayor Daley has been supportive of Growing Home in Englewood. In 2006, the city helped Growing Home establish a one-acre site at 58th Street and Wood Avenue. At the Englewood market the group sold lettuce and red bell peppers for one dollar and kale, scallions and Swiss chard for just fifty cents more. The co-op made $77 one week, which was about average for the summer.

Teamwork Englewood has been an important player in the neighborhood and worked with the city to coordinate this year's market. Doris Jones, of the neighborhood organization, stopped by to buy some pound cake and talk with vendors. She said that after the last market there would be an evaluation period to see where and when a site would be set up for next summer.

Chicago isn't the only city in the country that the LaSalle Bank study classified as containing "food deserts." Mari Gallagher, the author of the study, said Chicago, as opposed to Detroit where virtually the entire city is a "food desert," has the "research and strength" to deal with this issue. Her research also indicates that food deserts exist in rural, suburban and urban places.

On Sept. 24, Gallagher partnered with the City of Chicago, the Polk Street Group and the National Center for Policy Research to host a food expo. The city also released six potential sites for grocery stores in the "food desert." One was city-owned land at 63rd and Halsted. Gallagher said that the mayor and executives of Kroger, SuperValu and Roundy's dined together after the expo.

That location and prospect might be too distant for a woman like Ernestine Kelly, who doesn't have a car and walked a few blocks down Ashland to buy a watermelon at the Englewood market.

"I can't carry a watermelon," she said.

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