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A sign with produce offerings on a sidewalk.
Healthy Hood Chicago has helped provide better food options for underserved parts of the city.
Healthy Hood Chicago/Anthony Goslawski

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The Community Groups Working to Eradicate Chicago’s Food Desert Problems

The pandemic has made the fight against food deserts even harder

In January, New Year’s resolutions abound. Diet-related goals related to healthier eating and weight loss are especially popular — particularly as the pandemic has kept Chicagoans inside and prompted many restaurants to specialize in comfort foods designed to manage the stress of the past year. But a major obstacle in better eating is a lack of resources, something many residents on Chicago’s South and West sides know all too well; those areas are home to many of the city’s low-income immigrants and communities of color who historically suffer from disproportionate access to essentials like food, health care, and education.

Food insecurity — the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources — makes it difficult for many South and West siders to make healthy choices and change cultural and family eating habits. The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened this problem: It has made it harder for Black and Latinx families to afford enough food to feed their families and exposed the longstanding health challenges for these communities, which were hit hard by the virus. And with the pandemic causing extra stress, lack of sleep, high rates of unemployment, and depression, experts say healthy eating habits can take a hit, especially for folks with limited options.

Dr. Tony Hampton, a regional medical director and physician at the Advocate Beverly Center specializes in family medicine and obesity and says the main barrier to better healthy living is twofold: inadequate access and geographic distance directly impact people’s diets on the West and South sides, but a lack of education also plays a part.

“In communities of color, the distance between stores and homes are always vastly wider than in other communities,” Hampton says. But even at major grocery chains, fresh produce is not always available. About two years ago, Hampton decided to partner with the Chicago Food Depository to launch Advocate Trinity Hospital’s Food Farmacy program to increase access to fresh and healthy food for patients and community members in need. The program offers education, counseling, and healthy foods pushing folks with chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity to cook their own food at home.

A chalkboard sign next to a carton of oranges.
Healthy Hood Chicago’s markets pop up around the city.
Healthy Hood Chi/Anthony Goslawski

Cooking at home has become more common since the pandemic, which has affected the restaurant industry nationwide. But for the communities that Hampton serves, the lack of healthy neighborhood restaurants makes it even more vital to make cooking a practice that can help people avoid corner stores and fast-food restaurants, he says.

“The [program] recognizes where there are gaps, partners with people at the Chicago Food Depository, and then uses this Food Farmacy idea to both educate and provide resources,” he says, positioning the program as an alternative to fast food.

While the city has made recent gains in helping the South and West sides combat food deserts by slowly bringing grocery store chains to areas like Englewood, Chatham, and South Shore, research shows they haven’t made a dent in food desert trends.

According to a 2018 University of Chicago study on urban foodscape trends, the number of supermarkets in the city increased between 2007 and 2014, but low-income neighborhoods have not reaped the benefits because their economic situation didn’t change.

Daniel Block, a professor of geography at Chicago State University who studies food availability and access, co-authored the study and tells Eater Chicago that these low-food-access areas have gotten worse in terms of accessibility since the study was completed. Target closed two South Side locations in 2019, and Bronzeville’s Save A Lot permanently closed last April. Even as South Shore got its grocery back at a former Dominick’s store after six years and Austin plans to get an independently owned fresh market called Forty Acres come next year, Block says the pandemic’s economic hit on residents in those areas could make it harder for them to afford fresh produce at the grocery stores.

“It is more about differing experiences of capitalism,” Block says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not harder to live somewhere where you don’t have a full-service supermarket, but if you think opening one is going to change people’s diets, most studies have shown it doesn’t.”

He agrees that grocery retail patterns and investment on the South and West sides are important, but so are diverse food options that work to brighten up neighborhoods historically known as food deserts — though he says it’s more apt to use the term food redlining. Community co-ops, food pantries, and community gardens are creating that vibrancy via mutual aid efforts and partnerships that have ramped up to feed those in need during the pandemic.

“Those models are more focused on building communities up,” he says. “Maybe a community garden doesn’t feed the great percentage of the population, but it’s something that has happened from the ground up.”

From the ground up is exactly how Oswaldo Becerra has helped his community stay fed during the pandemic. Becerra is the event director of Pilsen-based Healthy Hood Chi, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable programming and resources to South Side families in an effort to shrink the 20-year life-expectancy gap between underserved communities and high-income communities. In March, he and Healthy Hood founder Tanya Lozano created We Got Us, an initiative that has given a weekly 15-pound box of produce from Midwest Foods Urban Growers Collective, personal protective equipment, flyers on ways to stay healthy, and recipe card to over 15,000 Chicago-area families.

“I need to give my community the resources that they deserve,” Becerra says of starting We Got Us. “Sometimes other resources that should be going to our people do not go there and it’s a very noticeable thing.”

He says the pandemic has shined a light on food apartheid — the racially discriminatory political structures that impact food access and control — in low-income communities already struggling with scarce food access or high prices, like his own. Sometimes people cannot buy three bell peppers for $6, he says, especially with the worsening economic crisis. He grew up in a Mexican family and his mom loved to cook and provide for her family, though meals were not always healthy, he says. Now, Becerra says his family is eating healthier thanks to the weekly produce boxes from We Got Us.

Three people holding up a white container full of food inside a food hall.
Majani has two locations serving vegan food.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Since last year, Chicagoans have been more aware of mutual aid giveaways of fresh fruit and vegetables across the city and on the West Side. State Rep. (8th District) La Shawn Ford says the giveaways meet his community’s needs. The shortage of healthy restaurants on the West Side is an issue, he says which is why holding nearby farmers markets — both private- and city-run —selling fresh produce and other healthy items, carries more weight.

“It’s always important for any community to have access to healthy choices at affordable prices,” Ford says. “That’s what Forty Acres and community stores that have an investment in neighborhoods do for the community. We need to support them so they can be successful and people have access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.”

To start the new year on the right foot and to help folks eat well, Hampton recommends that people “control your controllables” despite the pandemic stress that he has seen hit his patients’ diets hard. He understands that settling for comfort foods might feel good in the now, but not later. Eat the green beans instead of the starchy carbs at least every other day, he says. Adhering to a stricter diet now will lead to more enjoyable results in the future.

“If we are comfortable with that, people will have permission to eat slightly differently,” Hampton says.

The following South and West side restaurants offer healthy food options and meals that are affordable and hearty, and that may inspire a more conscious dietary lifestyle for 2021 — while helping local restaurants stay afloat.

Belli’s Juicebar & Local Foods Market

1307 W. 18th Street

The woman-owned, independently run Belli’s in Pilsen offers cold-pressed juices, organic produce, healthy to-go salads, and vegetarian bowls, as well fresh vegan treats and weekly “Belli Baskets” full of produce from Midwestern farmers.

Majani Restaurant

7167 S. Exchange Avenue

South Side favorite Majani serves soulful vegan cuisine. The African-influenced restaurant includes a “crabcake” sandwich made with baked tofu, a lentil mushroom burger, and stir-fried veggies. One of its specialties is the barbecue roast sandwich: thinly sliced Majani-made roast, grilled with onions and barbecue sauce and served with signature roasted sweet potatoes, as well as the barbecue cauliflower, a soy-based treat battered and fried with a bold barbecue sauce.

The Wrap Bar

8154 S. Cottage Grove Avenue

Family-owned Wrap Bar in Chatham offers quick bites like sandwiches, salads, and wraps. The hidden gem’s popular items include the jerk chicken wrap, the salmon wrap, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Conscious Plates

332 E. 51st Street

Conscious Plates is a 100 percent alkaline and plant-based restaurant and organization that offers holistic healing and lifestyle training. The restaurant was born out of a 2018 popup and offers healthy alternatives to popular dishes like pizzas, nachos, and burgers. Customer favorites include the raw brownie ball, fajita tacos, and the restaurant’s signature Burro fries: sliced Burro bananas deep-fried in grapeseed oil.

Original Soul Vegetarian

203 E. 75th Street

The legendary vegan spot in Greater Grand Crossing offers a deli hot bar and vegan takes on soul items like jerk chicken, nachos, and spicy chicken wraps, as well as a full juice bar. A few favorites are the barbecue twist platter with soy-based meat and the falafel platter or the veggie gyros. While the menu includes fried foods, overall, it’s a healthy option for people who need to reduce their red meat intake.

Majani Restaurant

7167 South Exchange Avenue, , IL 60649 (773) 359-4019 Visit Website

Original Soul Vegetarian

203 East 75th Street, , IL 60619 (773) 224-0104 Visit Website
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