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Feature Fri Sep 03 2010

Greener Pastures for Food Deserts

This article was submitted by freelance writer Italia Patti.

Over 600,000 Chicago residents live in food deserts, or neighborhoods where mainstream grocery stores are scarce, according to the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group's 2009 Food Desert Progress Report. But for those Chicagoans, new options are emerging to make fresh, wholesome food more accessible and, perhaps more importantly, more affordable.

One older but recently improved alternative to mainstream grocery stores is the neighborhood farmers market. Many of Chicago's food deserts have had seasonal farmers markets for years, but new initiatives are making the markets a more affordable option. While food deserts affect a diverse population, the majority of residents are poor. To thrive and properly serve Chicagoans inhabiting food deserts, farmers markets must address this socioeconomic reality. Dennis Ryan of the Experimental Station, a not-for-profit organization that supports a variety of community-based projects (including the 61st Street Farmers Market), emphasizes the need to make the food at farmers markets affordable for potential customers. To that end, he notes that "in a low income area, you need to accept Link," Illinois' state-run food subsidy program.

So it was welcome news when five city-run farmers markets began accepting Link cards. The pilot program--which includes the Daley Plaza, Division Street, Beverly, Lincoln Square and South Shore markets--is organized by various city departments and the Experimental Station. Next year, five additional markets will join, and by 2012 all seventeen city-run markets will participate. These city-run markets join the growing number of independent markets which also accept Link cards.

The city's initiative is timely. The popularity of farmers markets among Link card users is growing at a stunning rate. The Experimental Station's 61st Street Farmers Market, which has accepted Link cards since opening in 2008, reports dramatic increases in Link-subsidized sales this year. According to Ryan, $1,000 Link dollars were spent at the market in 2008. In 2009 the number jumped to $5,000. Ryan estimates that this year it will reach $15,000.

There is reason to think that the city-run markets will meet with similar success. Based on the data collected so far, Ryan estimates that this year, between $17,000 and $20,000 Link dollars will be spent at the five markets. By comparison, in Michigan's first year of accepting federal food subsidies at farmers markets, customers across the state spent $6,700 in subsidized funds.

This success is due large part to the city's partnership with organizations like Wholesome Wave, a not-for-profit grant-making organization whose goal is to make healthy, locally grown food more accessible and affordable. Through their Double Coupon Value Program, Wholesome Wave provides grants to farmers markets to double the value of Link dollars for customers while still paying farmers full price for their food. This program helps markets more effectively serve low-income shoppers by allowing them to buy twice as much food with each Link dollar (although markets can set a daily cap on how many double value dollars each person can earn).

Still, even Ryan is quick to add that given their seasonal schedule and other limitations, a farmers market may not be a thorough solution for every community. Fortunately, other options that make fresh food more accessible year-round are also beginning to pop up.

Perhaps the most publicized and controversial of these alternatives are the Walmart stores slated to open in Pullman next year and Chatham in 2012. Chad Broughton, a Public Policy professor at the University of Chicago who studies food access, expressed the mixed feeling on the subject many share. "I'm no fan of Walmart for all the 'regular reasons,'" he said--chiefly, the store's widely criticized labor policies and fierce anti-union stance, and their potential to adversely affect small and independent stores in the surrounding area who cannot compete with its low prices. Despite these drawbacks, Broughton went on to explain that residents could benefit from Walmart by having increased and consistent access to fresh food.

Despite the negative impact that the chain store has on existing businesses, many Chicagoans living in food deserts support the opening of a Walmart in their respective neighborhoods, which have long suffered due to limited vendors, selection, and price-gouging. According to Broughton, "[surveyed residents] even claimed that small store owners in their area would buy food at places like Aldi with Link cards they illegally purchased with cash, and then turn around and sell the Aldi food at their own stores for inflated prices." While residents may want to support local businesses, they can't deny that the consistency and structure of what Walmart can offer in such underserved neighborhoods isn't attractive to their needs as consumers.

Walmart is not a universally praised solution. Research of the 2006 opening of a Walmart store in the Austin neighborhood showed that for every job that the store added, one was lost from surrounding businesses who closed in the wake of Walmart's competitive prices. It remains to be seen if the forthcoming south side Walmarts will have the same effect.

Other less controversial options are becoming available. The Department of Family Support Services and The Greater Chicago Food Depository run forty-two mobile food pantries to provide food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, in low income areas and/or areas lacking mainstream grocery stores. In addition to healthy food, the mobile pantries provide health education.

Online grocery retailer Peapod has expanded its delivery area and now covers over half of the Chicago food desert. Peapod also delivers discounted seasonal fruit bags to drop of locations in neighborhoods deemed most in need. Such initiatives defray some of the cost of their otherwise expensive items. Delivery options such as Peapod maximize convenience, a factor with an enormous effect on what foods people choose. Sixty-five thousand people living in Chicago food deserts do not have cars, exacerbating the problem created by the dearth of nearby sources of fresh food.

So far, though, the problem of transportation has gone largely unaddressed by farmers markets. Most farmers markets are located near El stops, but that does not necessarily make them accessible from within the neighborhood. Better local bus routes or shared ride programs would go a long way to make farmers markets, as well as other options, more accessible.

Even the 61st Street Farmers Market, which has by far the most comprehensive range of programming of any Chicago farmers market, has not really addressed the issue of transportation for customers who live in more underserved regions of the South Side. Ryan explained that in the market's first year, he personally picked up people who requested rides, but as the market grew he had to stop. He would like to see an organization with a bus or van help get people to the market, but so far no one has offered. Despite setbacks and unaddressed needs such as transportation, the diversity of new venues and programs that increase food access is heartening.

Hopefully the current solutions will give way to a deluge of farmers markets, food pantries, delivery options, and eventually, grocery stores, making once desert-like neighborhoods lush with fresh, affordable, delicious and healthy food--the importance of which cannot be overemphasized. Although even remarkable improvements in food access alone may not be enough to make people healthier, they will help. In Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group finds a strong correlation between living in a food desert and such health problems as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. This finding does not necessarily mean that living in food deserts causes people to make unhealthy food choices and thus have poor health outcomes, but as the group aptly notes in the concluding remarks of the 2009 Food Desert Progress Report, "Personal choice and responsibility regarding healthy food is important, but we find that it is very hard to choose healthy food if you don't have access to it."

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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