Food Deserts in Our Backyard by Sara Harbaugh

Hunger affects one in eight Americans every day and an estimated 37 million Americans needed emergency food assistance in 2009. There are families where the children don’t know if there will be dinner tonight; individuals who live in Single Room Occupancies who can’t cook a meal for themselves or they risk being put out on the street; and families who must choose between buying food and paying for rent, heat, or medication. These are the faces of extreme hunger that affect our nation and our city.

But what about those who have access to food but lack affordable and consistent access to healthy options like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats?  Aren’t there families that, no matter how much they want to, cannot put a green salad on the table? Aren’t there children who have never seen a radish, a cantaloupe or brussel sprouts? Aren’t there some teens who truly think potato chips count as a vegetable? What about these ‘soft’ faces of hunger?

Food deserts exist in many of the underserved neighborhoods in Chicago. There are no grocery stores and the stores that do sell food items typically sell chips, candy, carbonated beverages, and other highly processed foods. A food desert is defined as “a concentrated area short on access to fresh meat and produce, but flush with the packaged and fried yield of convenience stores and fast-food outlets1.” This doesn’t necessarily describe a series of blocks without a corner store that carries apples, but rather a whole neighborhood that doesn’t have a big box grocery like Jewel, Dominick’s or Aldi and therefore forces people to travel outside the neighborhood for access to fresh produce and meat.

There are several different types of responses to this problem. Some answers are top-down like the compromise between city officials and Walmart that allows for the construction of a new Supercenter in Pullman Park, an area with high levels of food insecurity. Some answers are grassroots, like the communities that have banded together to create farmers markets in their neighborhoods. Successful farmers markets now currently operate in-season in Bridgeport, Chatham, Pullman Park, South Shore, and Woodlawn. For more information on a farmer’s market near you, click here2.

Nearly half of all who receive emergency food support also receive food stamp benefits. Food pantries that are USDA funded can only serve their clients once a month and they must meet income and residency requirements. Not all pantries purchase food from the USDA supported Greater Chicago Food Depository.  Some rely wholly on donations from individuals or grocery stores that give away their near-expired food.  It is through these donations that clients at the MGR Foundation’s (the organization I work for)Food Circle have weekly access to fresh greens, fruits and vegetables.

There are some pretty simple ways we can combat hunger. We can limit the amount of food waste we produce. We can lobby our City Council to change zoning laws to allow for more community gardens and allow for aquaponics. We can ask our grocery stores what they do with their expiring food and food waste. We can volunteer at our local pantry, whether they are or aren’t a part of the USDA system. We can make equal access to healthy and nutritious foods a priority.


Sarah Harbaugh is a Program Coordinator at the MGR Foundation, She coordinates the CareTeam, dedicated to alleviating the effects of poverty through engaged and innovative service, and WillPower, teen pregnancy prevention program that utilizes peer theatre, supported by sexual education and parental involvement, to encourage students to think critically about their sexual and reproductive choices.

This entry was posted in Hunger, Poverty, & Housing, Nonprofit Issues and Causes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Food Deserts in Our Backyard by Sara Harbaugh

  1. Jeffrey L. Wiseman says:

    I enjoyed the read. However, I view this topic sort of like the Chicago activists and yuppies did the then-proposed smoking bans – a solution in search of a problem. Data created to justify an end and done so at the detriment/defense of someone other than themselves. But that is how do-gooders look at markets – if you don’t like what you see get government to the rescue.

    If one is confused why these so-called deserts exist, please turn to the front page of Monday, June 20, 2011 Chicago Sun-Times. A grocery store owner was shot to death in Englewood. The second time in less than six years this occurred at the exact same location. While the suggestions in your read are reasonable, those who care to “do something” need to include teaching the young and primarily black male populace to respect their local businessman; which primarily consist of Koreans and Arabs. Without them there will not be any stores in their neighborhood.

  2. Steve says:

    Strong feelings above. I’m not sure they are “so-called” deserts…it seems pretty reasonable to call them that. I am not sure I see a correlation between grocery stores and crime. And a shooting in 1 place in a 6 year span at a convenience store (which is what it was)- does not justify there being no place to buy ‘real’ food.

    And your point about “do-gooders”. Why are you using this as a negative term? I think you are extremely naive with your whole perspective here.

    The solution above that will help this is with Wal-Mart (which I hate to say). But the idea of using government as a PARTNER is required for something like this — which will help a lot of areas in Chicago gain easy access to “real” food.

    Overall, love this topic. I have seen it come up in the news around Chicago more and more lately!

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