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600,000 Chicagoans stranded in food deserts

Photo By: NatalieMaynor/Creative Commons

Access to healthy food choices isn’t an option for the thousands of Chicago residents living in food desert neighborhoods.

“Food deserts are communities or places where food is not accessible to everyone, location-wise. People have to take a couple trains or busses to reach a location where healthy food is available,” according to Kelly Trace from the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council.

Chicago ranks second in the nation for number of food deserts in a city. The lack of healthy eating options affect about 600,000 Chicagoans. The consequences of food deserts include diet-related illnesses, and in some cases, early mortality. Several organizations, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel continue to push new policies and initiatives to help end Chicago food deserts. Urban food markets are also popping up in food desert neighborhoods to create fresh food options for residents.

Food deserts are most prevalent on the South and West Sides of Chicago. These neighborhoods are home to low-income families, who don’t attract investment from grocery stores. Food deserts have little or no access to fruits and vegetables. Instead, residents of food desert communities shop at their neighborhood corner stores, where usually only processed, unhealthy foods are available.

Consequences of food deserts are endless. “The most prevalent issue is the health diet-related diseases, for example, diabetes, obesity, and development of our youth,” Trace says.

Emanuel has promised to help put an end to Chicago’s food desert neighborhoods. He has gathered executives from grocery store chains, and encouraged them to open shop in low-income communities that don’t have access to healthy food.  But only a few grocery stores have opened up in food-insecure neighborhoods as a result of Emanuel’s push to help end food deserts.

Emanuel has also encouraged owners of current grocery stores in food desert neighborhoods to stock up on fresh produce. The $250,000 plan is called the “Healthy Places” program.

Humboldt Park, on the West Side of Chicago, is one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by food deserts.

“West Humboldt Park has the highest diabetes rate in the nation,” says Isaiah Ross, the urban agriculture supervisor at the West Humboldt Park Development Council. “We have a lot of people here living with diabetes and high obesity rates as a result of food deserts.”

The West Humboldt Park healthy community initiative is one of the pioneering programs put in place to end food insecurity in food desert neighborhoods. The initiative aims at making West Humboldt Park a “community with access to wellness,” Ross says. Ross says he hopes to see more initiatives pop up in other low-income, food desert communities around Chicago.

More than 17 neighborhoods, mostly on the South and West sides of Chicago, are food desert neighborhoods, according to researcher Mari Gallagher. Gallagher has been studying the effects of Chicago food deserts on residents’ overall health for years.

The most recent research focuses on the links between food access and health outcomes. The findings showed that residents of food deserts have significantly worse health issues than those who live in neighborhoods with adequate nutritional food options.

Families living in out-of-balance food environments showed higher rates of residents dying prematurely from diabetes. Also, the study showed that premature death due to cancer and cardiovascular disease is greater within communities where food choices are low. This is the first research that has shown a clear link between food deserts and health issues. Most importantly, the study found that communities without access to healthy foods have an increase in diet-related premature deaths.

Though food deserts affect several racial groups, they have been found to be more prevalent in African American communities. Research shows that African-Americans are the most disadvantaged when it comes to balanced food choices.

On the average food desert block, the closest grocery store is nearly twice as far as the closest fast food restaurant. It is much easier to get food from a fast food restaurant then to get healthy food from the grocery store. This means that following their doctor’s dietary recommendation is difficult for about the half-million residents who live in food deserts.

Food balance is a significant contributor to increased rates of body mass index, according to researchers. When Marie Gallagher conducted the analysis separately by distinct food venues, it is noticeable that the distance to a grocery store has an even greater impact on body mass index.

Since obesity can fuel the onset of other diseases and chronic health issues, “the development of grocery stores in underserved areas would contribute positively to community health and wellness,” Trace says.

One of the leaders helping to end the fight against food deserts are the Advocates for Urban Agriculture. They are a group of individuals and organizations working to bring fresh foods to food desert neighborhoods through farming.

The work of Advocates for Urban Agriculture has brought several farm markets to underprivileged neighborhoods across Chicago. The farm markets that have opened up in food desert neighborhoods offer a variety of economical produce, and healthy food choices. This has helped reduce the negative impact of food deserts and will continue to help food-insecure neighborhoods improve over time.

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.