On a one-acre vegetable farm in Chicago, a bearded, 6 foot, 3 inch-tall black man squats before a bed of green, leafy radishes. Unlike most produce, these have been grown without toxic chemicals.
As he reaches into the dense foliage to harvest them, an oversized black t-shirt hangs on his thin square shoulders and red basketball shorts skim his calves.
Sunglasses shield his eyes, and a Bluetooth rests on his right ear. He sees a red, tennis ball-sized bulb and grabs its plume, plucking the radish from the ground.”That’s a big boy,” said Arthur King, 36, smiling as he pinches the stringy roots and threads them between his fingers to remove the dirt.
King is proud of his large radishes but prouder of what they represent. Unlike the bulk of organic, or low- to no-chemical food in Chicago, these radishes are not headed to white neighborhoods, an upscale grocery or gourmet farmers market. Growing Home, the Chicago nonprofit that runs this organic farm, is one of the few growers who markets its organic food to people of all races and incomes.
The roughly 10 pounds King gathers–”just enough to gauge buyer interest for the rest of the season–”will be taken to the grand opening of the Englewood Farmers Market the next day, along with several bunches of organic collard greens and kale.
Englewood is a predominantly black, low-income community that, like most black Chicago neighborhoods, offers residents few groceries where they can buy organic food. Organic food is healthier and environmentally friendly, but rarely found on store shelves in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. “It’s easier to find a semi-automatic weapon in our communities than it is to find a tomato, much less an organic tomato,” said LaDonna Redmond, a food justice activist at the Frederick Blum Neighborhood Assistance Center, a Chicago State University urban planning think tank.
No one has proven that residue from the carcinogens and neurotoxins–”cancerpromoting and nerve-damaging toxins–”used to grow most produce in the U.S. makes healthy adults sick, according to a March report by the Organic Center, a nonprofit, pro-organic research and education foundation. But a recent study suggests probable links between adult exposures to pesticides and diabetes, cancer, birth defects, premature birth and several neurological diseases associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease, according to the report.
The environmental benefit of organic farms is also compelling, said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Fertilizer that runs off into the Mississippi River has helped destroy the fish habitat in an 8,000 square-mile section of the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen in the runoff promotes excessive algal growth, suffocating marine life. Organic farms pollute less because their soil better traps the nitrogen, reducing the amount entering the water, DeWitt said.
“People are going organic because it is better for the soil, better for water, better for animals and better for humans,” DeWitt said.
But few grocery stores in black neighborhoods give residents the option to buy organic. As the black population increases, the number of stores selling organics in a community area decreases, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis. The Reporter surveyed 209 grocery stores spread across nine of the city’s 77 community areas. They were the three most populous black, white and Latino neighborhoods:
–¢ The population of the white neighborhoods was less than one-third of the total population of the communities examined, but were home to nearly two-thirds of the stores that carried organics.
–¢ Ten percent of stores in black communities carry organics, compared to 24 percent in Latino communities and 63 percent in white areas.
The Midwest’s largest distributor of organic food, Goodness Greeness, is located in Englewood. The company ships organic produce to 1,200 to 1,500 grocery stores across the nation. Ironically, none of them are in Englewood. Because the company doesn’t sell to the public, its neighbors can’t get its food without leaving their community.
One of the company’s 15 Chicago retail outlets is in a black community. One is in a Latino community, three are in mixed communities, nine are in white communities and one is accessible through the Internet. When the owners tried to interest local grocers in selling organics, the grocers in black communities said no. “African Americans are just as educated on the issues and more than willing to pay the money,” said Bob Scaman, president of Goodness Greeness. “They just have to drive four miles to get it.”
In West Garfield Park, a predominantly black community on Chicago’s West side, access to organic food is so limited that when a doctor diagnosed Redmond’s son with severe food allergies nine years ago, the food activist resorted to growing organic produce in her backyard. The closest place she could buy organics was at Whole Foods in west suburban River Forest.
Residents of black communities who want organic food can leave their neighborhoods to get it or attend a farmers market. More than one-third of Chicago’s 27 black community areas have a farmers market that sells some organics, according to a Reporter analysis of the city’s list of farmers markets. There are 10 farmers markets in black communities, compared to nine found in white communities. Just one farmers market is located in a Latino neighborhood. There are 13 in mixed communities.
Another way residents of black communities can get organics is through delivery, directly from the farm to their neighborhood. But fewer organic farms deliver to Chicago’s black communities. The Reporter found that there are just three drop-off points in Chicago’s 27 black communities, compared to four in Latino neighborhoods, 11 in white neighborhoods and 21 in mixed neighborhoods.
What some people want is an actual organic grocery store, and not having them is inconvenient and unfair, said Inez Teemer, founder of Chicago’s Black Vegetarian Society. Teemer, who lives in Chatham and has no car, said that her neighborhood Jewel carries a small selection of organics, but she travels 10 miles to get groceries. “Why do I have to travel all the way to the North Side to go to Trader Joe’s?” she said.
Origins in the U.S.
Nineteenth-century American farmers didn’t have man-made fertilizers, but their farms were far from organic. Many used lead and arsenic as pesticides, said Warren Belasco, professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. When a German scientist revealed the chemistry to make fertilizer in 1840, most U.S. farmers continued to use animal manure for another century. But it wasn’t because they were environmentalists or health enthusiasts. Manure was cheaper. Plus, the equipment to spread man-made fertilizer didn’t come into use until the 1940s, said Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
Between the 1930s and the 1940s, U.S. commercial farms more than doubled their average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer. Around 1947, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture argued that fertilizers would help farmers grow more food per acre, farmers began spreading it on their fields because they saw it as simple and a way to raise profits.
The widespread use of fertilizer and pesticide revolutionized the U.S. food system. Farmers started growing a single crop because the fertilizer and pesticides allowed for mechanization, which allowed them to plant, harvest and raise even more food. But without multiple species of crops and animals, the farms lacked natural predators, fertilizers and decomposers, which healthy ecosystems require. Soils grew thin, dry and infertile. Pest outbreaks and epidemics of infectious disease emerged. Instead of diversifying the species they grew, farmers added more toxic chemicals. A few soil scientists condemned these changes, arguing fertilizers and pesticides were harmful. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a smattering of U.S. farmers and grocers began to listen and Â¬stopped using them. Many were hippies who moved from cities into the countryside and Â¬taught themselves to grow food without chemicals. As this agrarian reform movement materialized in Chicago, it bypassed black neighborhoods. One of the first organic grocers in Chicago, Rainbow Grocers, opened on the North Side. Orrin Williams, 59, an African American, lived at 69th and Indiana in the Park Manor neighborhood at the time and remembers carpooling to Rainbow and buying groceries in bulk to share with his friends. “Since the earliest days of organic agriculture evolved it never has paid any attention to our community,” Williams said.
Organic farmers, meat and poultry packers, manufacturers and distributors said they don’t discriminate. “We’ll sell to anybody, as long as you have a health food store and that’s your primary focus,” said Michele Raddatz, a sales representative for NOW Foods, a manufacturer of organic dietary supplements and organic dried goods. NOW Foods supplies 18 Â¬stores on Chicago’s South Side, Raddatz said. Few independent grocers in black communities have expressed an Â¬interest in organics, said Raddatz and Jessica Cohen, marketing manager for Sommers Organic, an organic beef and poultry processor in Northwest suburban Wheeling.
Despite market research to the contrary, the grocers in predominantly black communities don’t believe their customers will buy organics, said Wes Jarrell, a professor of sustainable agriculture and natural resources at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co- owner of Prairie Fruit Farms in Champaign. “A big part of [the limited access to organic food in black communities] is the pre-conception by suppliers that no one will pay more, that there’s no appreciation for what it takes to raise food,” Jarrell said.
It’s not just a pre-conception, said Erika Allen, who manages the Chicago branch of Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit working to establish a healthy and equitable food system. Selling organic is labor intensive, Williams said. A grocer has to go to a market, buy the food, power a freezer to store it and regularly inspect it and discard what’s rotten. It can be a risky proposition with low profit margins, said Sherri Tillman, co-owner of A Natural Harvest Health Food Store & Deli, a 26-yearÂ¬-old South Shore grocer and café. Produce spoils easily without aggressive marketing, Tillman said. Her store sells organic vitamins, supplements, and packaged foods and plans to start selling organic produce this fall.
Major chain groceries–” which carry organics in all their Chicago stores–”have a larger customer base and enough staff to rotate their organic produce, said Redmond.
But they also have more stores in white neighborhoods than black ones. There are 13 Jewel food stores in predominantly white community areas, six in predominantly black communities and four in majority Latino communities. Dominick’s has six stores in predominantly white communities, seven in mixed communities, two in black communities. Spokespeople for Dominick’s and Jewel declined to explain the disparity.
David Vite, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said disposable income, not race, determines which communities get grocery stores. “We acknowledge there are places in Chicago where there are issues with access to fresh food,” Vite said. For every dollar that a typical grocery store earned in 2007, 98 and 99 cents of it covered the cost of running the business, which means only one to two cents of it was profit, Vite said. With such a low profit margin, he said, groÂ¬cery stores cannot afford to experiment with opening stores in locations with low disposable incomes.
African Americans don’t have as much money as white people, but no one can deny that they buy groceries, even organics, Williams said.
“There’s this business model afoot that said [major grocers] don’t have to serve this community,” he said. “–˜I’m gonna sit back and put my store in a place where the economic and demographic profile said that I want to place my store,’ and then the gravy is all those black folk who show up and shop.”
What is being done?
In the spring of 2009, Redmond intends to break ground on Good Food Market, a 20,000-square-foot grocery store at Pulaski Road and Washington Street in West Garfield Park. Redmond intends to franchise Good Food Market in cities with similar access disparities. Orrin Williams has similar aspirations for the projects he’s coordinating at the Center for Urban Transformation, a nonprofit that he founded in 2000 to address food justice issues. The nonprofit plans to open a mobile grocery store, deploying street vendors with carts of produce, and supply staff to refresh and restock organics at independent grocers.
It could be years before either project spreads. “My paternal grandmother would tell you, –˜Don’t shop in the black community’, because she knew that the quality in white communities was better,” Williams said. Williams’ grandmother would be 109 if she were alive today. “We’re still in the same situation.”
Contributing: Madelaine Burkert, Alex Campbell, Stacie Johnson, Beth Wang and Matt Hendrickson