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Brother, Can You Spare a Tomato?

By Sarah Dahnke in Food on Jul 19, 2006 6:13PM

Diabetes. Cancer. Heart disease.

These are just a few of the obesity-related diseases that were found to cause earlier deaths on Chicago’s south and west sides, where so-called “food deserts” exist. 2006_7_19_healthyfood.jpg

According to Mari Gallagher, author of the report titled “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” there is a food imbalance in effect in some areas of the city. She told 848 that her research team measured the distance to every grocery and every fast food restaurant in every one of the 18,000 blocks in Chicago. They found that on the south and west sides, not only were fast food restaurants abundant, but grocers were few and far between. Although the study does not state a direct cause-and-effect, it did find that the death rate from diabetes is the worst in food deserts, and the rate of obesity seems to increase as the access to grocery stores decreases. In contrast, those areas that had both high concentrations of grocery stores and fast food restaurants had fewer instances of diet-related diseases.

Gallagher’s study is a follow-up to a study in 2005 that found that south side residents have little access to major grocers or retailers but have a plethora of liquor stores and fast food restaurants. She also reported in 2004 that there are 3.4 big grocers per 100,000 residents in white wards, compared with 2.6 in black wards and 2.3 in Latino wards. After the first study was released, LaDonna Redmond, president of the Institute for Community Resource Development in the Austin neighborhood, was quoted as saying, "I can walk out my door and buy a semi-automatic weapon or narcotics, but I can't find organic tomatoes or lettuce anywhere.”

Two years and two studies later, it seems that little has been done to change the situation, and some have called out major retailers such as Jewel, Dominick’s, Cub and Aldi as being racist. Alderman Leslie Hairston from the 5th Ward called the lack of grocers in her area a “smoke screen for racism,” adding that when she has asked major chains to enter her neighborhood and provided a median income, they “come up with another reason” to not build a store.

The Sun-Times published a graphic to help understand the concentrations of food deserts in the city, noting that “food deserts are nearly exclusively African-American.” This is a standpoint similarly held by Redmond, who developed a “micro-farm” in her backyard several years ago after attempting to find organic food in her neighborhood, only one grocery store – period. Once she found the store, she was shocked to see that the produce was ridiculously overpriced, with Boston lettuce costing $3 per pound and heirloom tomatoes costing $4.99 per pound.

So what is the solution to the problem? Gallagher suggested a two-fold plan that involves education and outreach to citizens of food desert neighborhoods, which will teach them proper nutrition habits. In addition, she said the city should provide incentives for grocers, both chain and independent, to enter neighborhoods where they do not have a presence. Obesity researcher Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Science Program at the University of Washington, told the Trib that the heart of the problem is economic distance to healthy foods. Since fast food is often cheaper than groceries in food deserts, there is often no incentive for residents to purchase their food elsewhere.

So what’s the solution, Chicago? Do we first help to employ the unemployed, raise the minimum wage and make sure health care is available for all? Or do we plant a Whole Foods on 119th St., close a few KFCs, sit back and see what happens? We’re pretty sure that the cure to the problem is some combination of both, but if we knew how to stop obesity all together, Chicagoist would be a lot more famous than we already are.

Listen to a webcast of 848’s interview with Mari Gallagher on Tuesday here.

Photo via bridgeportseasoning on Flickr.