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What Could Rahmageddon Mean for Chicago Food?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 24, 2011 4:20PM

Chicago's local food community was buzzing with excitement in early February when then-candidate Rahm Emanuel announced the food policies for his potential administration. Now that he has taken the mayor's office, it's time to revisit those policy statements and see what is in store for Chicago's urban food scene under the new Emanuel administration. If he is able to enact his plans, we could see a dramatic transformation; a city where food trucks are legal, produce is sold directly to consumers, urban agriculture is promoted, and food deserts are eliminated.

It was encouraging to see Emanuel's campaign even release a statement on food policy. The candidate only had 10 "issue" statements, and it was nice to see food access right up there with job creation, TIF reform and transportation. Mayor Daley was notoriously proud of the city's food scene, but in recent years, his administration seemed unable to make the real changes that were necessary to support local agriculture and culinary innovation.

The former candidate's food policy statement, which you can read in its entirety, has two major sections: "A Grocery Store in Every Neighborhood" and "Expand Urban Agriculture." The first, while a worthy goal, will be harder to enact than the second. Under the heading of "well intentioned but vague" is his statement that we must "Send a clear message to retailers: doing business in Chicago requires doing business in all neighborhoods." The action steps for this category involve holding meetings with businesspeople to convince them to move. Yeah, we're not holding our breath. On the other hand, Emanuel wants to create and utilize financial incentives for grocers and retailers to operate in under-served neighborhoods. This program, which has worked in other cities, may actually begin to fight problems with food access.

The other half of his food policy sets its sights on urban agriculture. These changes have the potential to happen quickly. Many of the problems Emanuel has identified are with existing city regulations, not large-scale economic problems, and a determined mayor may be able to change those regulations. He wants to "Cut the bureaucratic and regulatory prohibitions on urban agriculture," which we discussed with Growing Home's Harry Rhodes back in January. Zoning for food production is a mess in Chicago, and this problem encompasses everything from urban gardens to shared kitchens. Hopefully, we won't see the Logan Square Kitchen mess re-enacted over and over again in an Emanuel administration.

The mayor-elect also wants to allow food trucks to operate legally and cook food on-site. As Minna reported last week, even the best food trucks are harmed by the requirement that food be cooked in restaurant kitchens and then trucked all over the city. Aside from improving food quality, this change has the potential to create jobs and opportunities for independant business, as well as make the city a more vibrant and interesting place to eat.

We don't expect all of these ideas to happen overnight. But we applaud the mayor-elect's committment to talking about food issues, and expect to see more concrete initatives from his office in the months to come.