Food deserts persist in Chicago despite more supermarkets

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Photo by April Alonso

The Dominick's at 2011 E 71st in the South Shore neighborhood has been closed since 2013. Despite efforts by the city and community groups, a new grocer has yet to move into the location.

Improving food access in “food desert” communities is a stated priority of the City of Chicago.

Over the past few years, City-led initiatives promoted new store openings in high need areas, such as the Whole Foods in Englewood. Most, but not all, of the Dominick’s stores that closed in 2013 have reopened under new banners.

Despite these seemingly positive steps, findings in our recent study “Urban foodscape trends: Disparities in healthy food access in Chicago, 2017-2014” suggest that many of the new stores that were added provided even more options – but only in areas that already had many options. They did little to improve supermarket access in areas with persistently low access in 2007 and 2011.

Food deserts are areas that lack reasonable access to fresh and affordable foods. Restricted access to healthy foods may magnify health disparities that lead to higher rates of chronic illness like diabetes, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease.

Despite an increase in the total number of supermarkets in Chicago, food deserts and food inequity persists. For example, African Americans make up approximately one third of Chicago’s population, but almost 80 percent of the population of persistently low or volatile food access areas.

Most of the new supermarkets were added in and around “food oases,” or areas with plentiful supermarket access. These high access areas are enriched with a variety of stores, instead of just one to serve all needs. Some new supermarkets were added in areas of high need, but these were not enough to increase access across the South side. They were not enough to fully mitigate the impact of previously closed supermarkets, and they were not enough to counterbalance other aspects driving underlying inequality.

The spatial pattern of grocery stores is, at its root, a pattern of retail investment and disinvestment. In trying to alter this pattern, the City is trying to push investment to particular neighborhoods. Sometimes they have been successful, but changing geographic investment patterns in a historically segregated city like Chicago is a difficult task.

Food access is multidimensional. Finding the nearest full service supermarket is just one aspect of securing healthy food. Healthy food access also requires that money for food is available, and that equitable prices can be found across markets in different communities. Access also demands time for grocery shopping, often a difficult balance between work, childcare, and traffic. A tuned and gassed-up car can get you to the store, but for those without cars, additional time is needed for navigating bus, rail, or sidewalks. And still more time is needed for cooking, prepping, and serving the food purchased.

As the food market increasingly transitions from the aisles in brick and mortar markets to online shopping and home delivery, we again have to consider how these changes will impact food equity. Disruptions geared towards higher-income consumers alone could magnify, not reduce, inequity. For example, inequity in internet access and acceptability of SNAP Benefits (i.e. food stamps) across new app platforms both shape accessibility patterns. Reducing grocery store experiences from places shopped by all to only those who can’t afford or know about delivery apps could likewise impact equitable food accessibility.

To fix this problem, we need to start by redefining it. Revising the “food desert” definition in research and public policy is necessary to better prioritize areas of highest need. Current approaches generally define a food desert as a census tract populated with low-income residents who must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket. We suggest that regions of persistently low food access should be prioritized over tract-level “food desert islands” to reduce food inequity. Furthermore, updating the distribution of markets alone may not eliminate food deserts.

Our approach uncovered more complexity in food desert patterns, and together with other new research, could provide more accurate recommendations than the current, dated approaches being used by policymakers.

Policy solutions could additionally include investing in reliable and more integrated public transportation, as well as expanding opportunities for community supported agriculture to deliver high quality, affordable, and reliable produce. Food insecurity networks (like food banks, non-profit grocers, and produce carts) should likewise be expanded and supported, while still advocating for more long-term and sustainable food options.

Any solutions we work towards to address food deserts should take into account the underlying phenomena driving food inequity, like the decades-long impacts of community disinvestment and racial segregation. Rather than look beyond these communities for answers, we should use the experience and deep knowledge from within to work towards more meaningful and sustainable solutions.