Click the image above to see how grocery store choices change drastically by neighborhood.

Click the image above to see how grocery store choices change drastically by neighborhood.

Nia Arnold is a guidance clerk at one of Chicago Public Schools’ 11 selective enrollment high schools. The closest grocery store to her school has always been Jewel Osco, nearly three miles away. Two months ago Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opened about four blocks away.

Before Wal-Mart opened, Arnold’s school was in one of the many food deserts on Chicago’s South Side. She says that even though there are healthy options available in and around the school, students still make unhealthy decisions.

“As soon as the bell rings, kids go to McDonald’s, Golden Fish and Chicken, or White Castle,” Arnold said. “Food desert or not, that’s a choice.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

WBEZ’s South Side reporter, Natalie Moore, says the USDA definition is problematic. “It doesn’t matter what your income is,” she said. “People with means are able to leave their neighborhoods and go elsewhere, but that doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what a food desert is and who lives there.”

The City of Chicago removes the low-income qualifier in its definition of food desert residents: “all Chicagoans living in a census block located more than a mile from a retail food establishment licensee with a business location larger than 10,000 square feet”

In 2013 Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the number of low-income Chicago residents living in food deserts had decreased by 21 percent since 2011. He also laid out a plan to completely eliminate food deserts in the city by 2020 by opening new grocery stores, funding small business efforts and supporting urban farming.

Most of the city’s food deserts are in predominantly black West and South Side neighborhoods. Moore says this is not a coincidence. “Retailers have an aversion to the black dollar,” she said. “The demographics prove that it is a race issue, not just a class issue.”

Her observation fits the data. According to a study by Mari Gallagher, a food desert researcher in Chicago, 383,954 Chicagoans were living in food deserts in 2011. Seventy-seven percent of them were black.

In addition to high crime rates and percentages of households below the poverty line, there are higher instances of childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure in Chicago food deserts.

In communities that have the most problems, like violence and unemployment, we’re seeing lack of grocery stores and lack of retail. All of these things are interconnected,” Moore said.

Healthier food at school

Though food options may be scarce in these communities, there is one healthy food option available for children: Chicago Public Schools.

Arnold says Chicago Public Schools is doing its part to eliminate food deserts in impoverished communities. This school year all CPS students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school.

“This program will allow all CPS students to focus on their studies without being distracted by hunger or worry about the stigma of free or reduced lunch,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of CPS, in a news release.

Arnold’s school is also part of the “Smart Snacks in School” program. Since July schools that are part of the national school lunch program can only sell snacks in their vending machines that meet strict nutritional guidelines, swapping Oreos and Fritos for their healthier counterparts like Baked Cheetos and Popchips.

“Our cafeteria works with this vending machine company, so we have baked snacks. Kids don’t want to eat them. They sneak in chips to sell,” said Arnold. “The options are there, but they don’t take them.”

New grocery stores 

Since 2013 plans for new grocery stores have been the hallmark of progress to eliminate food deserts. This year Roundy’s, parent company of Mariano’s Fresh Markets, received $5 million in state bond proceeds from Gov. Pat Quinn to build five new grocery stores, four in Chicago food deserts. A lot at 87th Street and South Lake Shore Drive, the site of a former steel mill, is one of the confirmed locations, as is 39thStreet and King Drive in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Both stores are scheduled to open in 2016 and will create about 400 jobs each.

A new Whole Foods is slated to open in Englewood in 2016 as part of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to revitalize one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The new store will serve as the anchor of 13-acre mixed-use site. The groundbreaking on the new Whole Foods location comes after openings in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood and New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood–both with demographics similar to Englewood’s.

Some praise the company for moving out of its comfort zone by providing healthy food options in low-income areas, but others wonder how a brand known for costing a “whole paycheck” will be able to convince customers that the organic juice is worth the squeeze.

“Whole Foods isn’t going to hurt the people in Englewood,” Moore said. “There are ways to shop without spending a lot of money, so ultimately it’s giving Englewood residents one more choice. It’s going to end up being a regional South Side store.”

Moore says residents of South Side neighborhoods such as Beverly, Bridgeport and Chatham will frequent the new location.

Urban farming

Chicago’s urban farming movement has also gained traction in the past few years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, urban farming is “the growing of plants or the raising of animals in and around cities.” Urban farming allows low-income community members to easily access fresher produce at lower prices.

“The more choices that people have are great. I also like the idea of turning vacant land into a positive-use space,” Moore said. “I don’t think that we are going to upend the way people eat and get their food.”

Urban farming creates options, but are more options enough to affect change?

Future Growing CEO Tim Blank is the creator of the Tower Garden, a vertical aeroponic gardening system. Tower Garden allows plants to grow soil-free in urban environments.

Future Growing currently has two projects in Chicago: the Salvation Army Rooftop Farm in Blue Island and the O’Hare International Airport Urban Garden, the world’s first vertical aeroponic food farm inside an airport terminal.

Blank’s Tower Garden gives local farmers the ability to thrive in city environments by growing up instead of out.

“The old greenhouse was a monoculture model where you grew one crop and shipped it everywhere,” he said. “To eliminate a food desert, local farmers have to be able to shift with market trends. Using less land and less water, we can transform the local food landscape.”

Future Growing also teaches farmers about the basics of urban gardening.

“Education is necessary for the movement to continue to grow,” he said. “Once people learn about the power of fresh vegetables, they will jump on the bandwagon. They just need to get educated.”

Moore agrees with Blank’s sentiments on the importance of education in the process of eliminating food deserts.

“There has to be an education component there. You just can’t put healthy food in a neighborhood and expect everyone to come. There have been lots of local efforts to educate people,” she said. “Whole Foods will do that. They did it in Detroit, and they said they will do it here.”

Not only do food desert residents need to educate themselves on healthy eating practices, City officials hoping to make a change also need to learn more about the situation.

“Some people probably find it very hard to believe that crappy corner stores, liquor stores and gas stations are the primary places where people have to shop,” Moore said. “We need an understanding of what these communities look like.”

Though progress has been made in eliminating Chicago’s food deserts, there is still work to do. The key to the success of Mayor Emanuel’s plan to eradicate food deserts by 2020 is making sure these programs have educational components and actually delivering on the big promises made by even bigger grocery stores.