food deserts

I was browsing around 5 Dollar Dinner (a worthwhile spot, btw, alternately inspiring and depressing) and found a link to this article about Walgreen’s efforts to bring fresh produce and other identifiable foods to neighborhoods in Chicago considered to be “food deserts.”

There’s a lot of debate about the causes and most effective cures for the obesity and poor nutrition that runs rampant in America at present. I think these are all worthy discussions to have, for certain, but I believe that setting all the other factors aside — single income folks with no time to cook, our taste for sugar, freedom of choice, all the hot button ideas — the first step for us is to at least make the choice available for consumers.

You want someone to buy a raw vegetable and take the risk and investment of time to cook it themselves? Then you damn well better put that raw vegetable within a mile of their home.

It is too easy to forget that food deserts are real, and many of the people living in them have no experience with anything else. For me, I grew up in the sticks, and though I didn’t know what hummus was until I went away to college, we grew our own vegetables in the summertime and the supermarkets near us had the basic meats and vegetables of mainstream America — and a few from the Polish and Puerto Rican immigrant communities. I went to college in an affluent part of Boston, and there we could buy just about anything. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I encountered any real absence of basic food.

The first neighborhood where I camped out in an empty apartment owned by friends of friends had one brand-new Dominic’s supermarket, and I was terrified to discover that in its gleaming white expanses there was NO chicken of any kind and no vegetables that looked like anything you might even consider eating. The only thing that seemed edible in there was the Mexican foods, so I bought eggs and chorizo and tortillas and lived on chilaquiles for a month until I moved to a better neighborhood.

Then when I was considering buying a condo, everything in my price range was either in Humboldt Park or Garfield Park. Had I made the purchase, I am sure I would have chosen Humboldt Park, because there were restaurants and bodegas there on most blocks with actual food in them, while Garfield Park was a blank wasteland of boarded up storefronts, check cashers, liquor stores and fast food. Sure, I like J&J fried fish too, but you can’t really live on it. No supermarkets for several miles, and the public transit coverage was spotty to start with. There may have been some small groceries, but I didn’t run across them on my visits. Garfield Park has beautiful apartment stock and the park itself is fantastic, but to get food I would have needed a car and a whole lot of time.

For people who have neither, and who furthermore have very little time or cash to sink into meal prep, the first step we have to take is making it a little bit less monumental an undertaking in the first place. Kudos to Walgreen’s for at least trying, and I’d very much like to see some stats on how it’s working.