If You Build It, They Won't Come?

Food deserts. Yes, you read that correctly - food deserts, not desserts. Sadly, food deserts lack the sweet aftertaste of desserts; rather these deserts are communities that lack healthy, fresh food options. These deserts are especially prevalent in African American and Latino communities throughout the Chicagoland area. Arguably, while food deserts may have decreased in recent years, a number of obstacles still remain when expanding access to healthy foods in Chicago.

Late last year, The Washington Post published an article announcing an 18,000 square-foot Whole Foods moving into the center of Englewood, “one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago” and a classic example of a food desert. To contrast the desolate stretch of city that has become Englewood, the Post identified the Whole Foods retailer by its parodied name, ‘Whole Paycheck,’ a reference to its high prices. The author of the article identified the new structure as a “gamble,” one that could potentially change what some of the residents eat on a daily basis. Greater access to healthy foods is the very goal of community stakeholders in Englewood who hope more food options mean healthier residents overall. Despite the skeptics, many had high hopes for the future of the Englewood community.

This future, however, dimmed earlier this year when a study was published by the Public Health Nutrition Journal that looked at the effect of supermarkets in food deserts. The study did not address the population health of Englewood in Chicago, but rather examined the Bronx neighborhood in New York, a comparable case study. Researchers spoke with specific residents of the Bronx neighborhood and asked them questions about their eating and food buying habits in six-month intervals.

The results were “sobering: “[w]hile there was an increase in those who said they shopped at the supermarket between the first and second rounds of questioning, that difference disappeared a year later.” Additionally, despite the access to fresh fruits and vegetables, there was a similar decline in produce available in homes after the year mark. While healthy food was available at the store, cost was the determining factor for most families making food-buying decisions.

It is clear from the study that access to healthy, fresh foods is a necessity in many food deserts around the country, but it is not the only determining factor in improving community health and diet. “Just building a supermarket is not enough.” Access is only part of the equation; the challenge is ensuring that these healthier foods are making its way from the store shelves to the dinner plates of the community.

While there is no single answer to this issue, it is clear from my time in the DePaul Housing and Community Development Legal Clinic that the entire community needs to be involved in the resolution. From stakeholders to residents, a greater and stronger community can flourish if differences are set aside and the greater interest of health and well-being is the primary focus. Eliminating food deserts in Chicago, and around the country, would be the cherry-on-top for the beautiful dessert that we call health.