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On June 15, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fulfilled a campaign pledge by holding a "Food Desert Summit" with representatives of Chicago's major grocery chains. The mayor provided a detailed analysis of potential South Side sites where stores could be located among the poorest areas of the city and at the epicenter of the food desert.
In a time of austerity and cutbacks, the mayor should be complimented for creative leadership in a time of trouble.
The food desert is a stark reality in much of Chicago's South Side--and in many other urban neighborhoods across the country. In Chicago, there are no major grocery stores on the Far South Side. "There is something fundamentally wrong in a city where 600,000 people at last count (out of a population of 2.8 million) do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables," said Emanuel, putting chain stores on notice that he wants low-income neighborhoods to be within a one-mile walk of a store with fresh fruits and vegetables.
For poor people, the food desert is particularly debilitating. They have to take mass transit, if there is any, across town to a decent store, shop and lug the food back. That takes exactly what poor mothers and fathers have the least of: time and money. The result is that our poorest children often have diets with the fewest vegetables and fruits and the most junk foods. Fast-food menus replace fresh foods. In addition, the poorest families often end up paying a higher price for basic foods than do suburban middle-class families with easy access to full-service grocery stores.
Why the desert? This is partly a legacy of redlining, skepticism about the breadth of the market and the costs of doing business in poor urban neighborhoods. The stores say getting qualified employees is difficult and that recruiting experienced managers to work there is costly.
But the reality, as the mayor undoubtedly demonstrated, is that these are underserved neighborhoods where good stores can do a profitable business. If the mayor's initiative is successful, not only will more families have access to less expensive and more nutritious food, but building the stores will generate construction jobs, staffing them will create retail jobs, and supplying them will create trucking work.
Some argue that urban Wal-Marts are a bad deal. Wal-Mart notoriously fights union representation and suppresses wages, and often ends up forcing less-competitive stores out of business. But the answer to that is community mobilization to set the conditions under which stores are built, not shutting the stores out all together.
Even if successful, this measure is but a first step. For the food desert isn't the only wasteland in poor neighborhoods and other cities. There is a public health desert--a severe shortage of public hospitals and emergency services. There is a summer recreation desert--summer and afterschool programs are being shut down, even as summer jobs have disappeared. And, most telling, there is an affordable public transportion shortage. Too often, the new jobs are in the suburbs; the unemployed are in the inner city. Without fast and affordable transportation, they can't get to where the jobs are--and can't afford to move there either.
Needless to say, mayors can't do this alone. We need new priorities at the national and state levels, a clear strategy for reviving our economy, and a new war on poverty. This week, the National Conference of Mayors is voting on a sensible statement in this regard, calling on the White House to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bring the troops home, and use the $120 billion a year to reinvest in domestic economic development.
But even without new priorities, mayors can make progress if they commit the energy and influence of their office. There's the food desert; the job desert; the access to health care desert; a housing desert. But we know flowers can bloom in the desert if there is irrigation--we need economic irrigation to make the flowers bloom. The mayor's initiative is a step in that direction.
In seeking to bring an oasis to the food desert, Mayor Emanuel provided a good example of what might be possible.