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Where a Convenience Store is the Grocery Store. Searching for quality food on the South and West Sides

     A 2006 study commissioned by LaSalle Bank determined that nearly 20 percent of Chicagoans live in food deserts, which the researchers defined as “large geographic areas with no or distant grocery stores.” Further, the study revealed that when limited access to quality food is paired with ready access to fast food, the
consequences are devastating. Residents of these neighborhoods
possess the highest body mass indexes in the city and
disproportionately suffer from obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
    As those who are familiar with Chicago might guess, these
neighborhoods are concentrated on the South and West Sides and are almost exclusively located in low-income African American
communities. Neighborhoods like West Englewood and Washington Park are faced with the legacy of depopulation and demographic shifts. As middle class whites fled to the suburbs, so did grocery stores. When the next round of supermarket construction began, the new suburbs were the first choice for development. Chicago, like so many central cities, ended the century with 50 percent fewer groceries than it had in 1970.
    What remains in food deserts is a patchwork of convenience
stores, often boldly announcing themselves as “food and liquor”
outlets, jettisoning the “grocery” from their names, perhaps in an
acknowledgement of their limitations. Located next to fast food
restaurants in despoiled commercial districts and turn-of-the-century corner buildings, these fortified convenience stores have well-stocked racks of snack foods, beer and soda, but often don’t even measure up to a 7-Eleven when it comes to nutrients. Ingredients found between rows of instant ramen noodles and chilled beverages cannot assemble even the most basic healthy meal.
    While convenience stores limp along selling empty calories,
there is clearly a need for quality food in these deserts. Municipal planners have waited for market-driven development to aid underserved communities, and it’s increasingly clear that development is a long way off. In a burgeoning health crisis, an essential health service has been forgotten: the preventative medicine of good food. If we need encouragement beyond common decency, perhaps our pocketbooks will move us. After all, it’s cheaper to grant the gift of health than health care.

Published: June 07, 2009
Issue: Summer 2009 Urban Living