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
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
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.