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.

  • Orlando coombs

    This is my thing. The answer to food deserts is simple. Urban Farming, Small Grocery Co-op’s, Farmer’s Markets, and more small black owned health food stores. Plus black people need to support it and only shop in their own neighborhoods and with black owned businesses. Food Deserts wouldn’t exist if the black community circulated it’s dollars and never let the money leave. And another thing, quit letting foreigners who don’t look like you and don’t look after you, come into your neighborhoods and take all your dollars and give you nothing in return. These Arab and Asian liquor stores, corner stores, and pawns shops and Chinese Restaurants take all your money and give you absolutely nothing back. None of them are donating a single solitary red cent to worthy causes in our community. So why are we giving these guys our money, our hard own capital, that’s gotta stop. Let’s direct those dollars towards black owned businesses in our neighborhoods. Englewood has already done this with Growing Home. Every black neighborhood and every black organization in Chicago should be patronizing them. The 10 largest black owned banks in America need to set up branches in every black neighborhood in Chicago. And every black resident over the age of 15 needs to have an account in these black owned banks. Too much human capital and economic capital is being wasted in our communities across America. Nobody is coming into our community to rescue us, we need to rescue ourselves. We are our own rescue.

    • Deloris Lucas

      Rescue me! Your story was enlightening and so true because I live it!

      Hi Orlando, I’m Deloris Lucas and we need to talk more about the Food Deserts issue.

      Here’s some background…
      I live in Golden Gate, which is next door to Altgeld Gardens. We live in Community #54–Riverdale, on the far southside of Chicago.

      And our only full service grocery store, Rose Bud Farm, closed suddenly Aug. 19th, without notice. They had operated here for over 60 years. They weren’t the best prices, but this was all that we had. The neighborhood is devastated.

      I’m working with other community advocates to establish other/more food sources like a Co-op, Neighborhoo Store, etc. for the community. Are you interested in helping us?
      Can you refer us to others working on the same mission…Getting Fresh Food in our Communities!

      Looking to collaborate with Mobile Markets, Food Produce Markets. etc

      Please send me an email: deelucas2002@yahoo.com

      • Orlando coombs

        Delores. I do not live in Chicago but I have friends and family there, 2 sisteran friends of mine. I live in Arizona and the most I can do is share information. That’s it and I’m glad to do that. There are black farmers in Chicago like Growing Home in Englewood. Whole Foods in Englewood has many black vendors. Up and coming black entrepreneurs that need your patronage. Start there. Take your dollars of them Asian and Arab stores that sell y’all unhealthy foods, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and toxic liquor that not only destroy your mind, body, soul, and your finances, but are a source of much of the violence taking place in y’all neighborhoods. Who you give your money to is who you give your power to. Spend all you can at black owned businesses, particularly for food items and if your a member of a church, demand that your pastor deposits all the church’s money in a black owned bank. Every red cent. And also have that minister tell the congregation to bank at a black owned bank 100%. If not 100%, at least 50%. Put Malachi Chapter 3 into meaningful and relevant practice. Every black church, mosque, synogogue, and place of worship in Chicago needs to bank at a black owned bank and urge their congregations to do so. And also, black entrepreneurs in Chicago need to buy, sell, and trade with one another. Because there is absolutely nothing the black community in Chicago needs that a black entrepreneur can’t provide. Absolutely nothing. Black people all over the globe are the most resourceful and resilient group of people on the planet. We are the only people in human history to literally make something out of nothing. From the days of slavery black people came up with ingenious ways to survive, thrive, and ultimately succeed against the most insurmountable odds and continue to do so. Delores. We got this my sister. One Love.

      • Deloris Lucas

        Thanks so much I got your reply. We got this! And I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

  • T L

    A simple Google search reveals that there are 2 full grocery stores (Jewel and Save-A-Lot) within a mile of the pictured vacant store on 71st.

  • jimmyk520000

    Bet there are plenty of hot spots to grab a bag of weed or some pills. Interesting three white people and no blacks researched this issue. Not surprising it’s the white conservatives and Christian churches that address so many minority problems. The liberals are too busy lining their pockets at the expense of the poor.