Food Deserts Shrinking in Chicago As Mayor Expands Community Gardens & Other Initiatives
October 10, 2013
Kyriaki (Sandy) Venetis in Chicago’s A Recipe for Healthy Places, Healthy Chicago, USDA, community gardens, food, food deserts, fresh produce carts, legislation, mobile produce buses, mobile produce markets, urban agriculture, urban farms

Food deserts have become a major concern in the United States, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reporting to Congress that, “Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious foods may be linked to poor diets and ultimately to obesity and diet-related diseases.”

Food desert. Image created by Leigh Burmesch.

Generally speaking, a food desert is an area where residents live at least a mile from a large supermarket or grocery store, where they can buy quality meats, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.

The USDA found in 2009 that about “23.5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

“A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all of the foods needed for a healthy diet, and that may offer these foods and other foods at higher prices.”

While it’s a growing concern at the national level, the problem of food deserts and healthy eating is proving to be an issue primary being acted on at the local city level.

Over the past several years, Chicago has taken on the task of becoming a leader in making progress in combating food deserts and health-related issues, primarily obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Chicago’s A Recipe for Healthy Places initiative reported that, “Rates of obesity in Chicago have doubled among adults and tripled among children since 1980, which mirrors trends in other urban areas in the U.S. and the country as a whole.”

The initiative also cited findings from The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “estimated that more than 35 percent of American adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents were obese in 2010,” adding that, “Obesity is the primary cause of medical problems including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and asthma.”

The Healthy Places initiative was launched by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as an outgrowth of the city’s public health agenda, Healthy Chicago.

Healthy Places has been under development since the summer of 2011, developing strategies through public workshops and forums involving the participation of individuals including: nutritionists, backyard gardeners, community activists, childcare providers, food entrepreneurs, academics, and neighborhood residents.

Adopted in January 2013, Healthy Places is now the city’s official roadmap for planning and policymaking to support healthy eating by fostering strategies including community gardens, healthy food businesses, and other related enterprises.

Among the biggest strides in addressing the healthy food needs of Chicago residents have been the efforts to reduce food deserts by increasing the number of large grocery stores with healthy food options in those areas.

Last August, the mayor’s office said that since the launch of the city’s efforts in June 2011 to reduce the number of food deserts, the number of low-income Chicago residents living in these areas has declined by 21 percent – falling from 100,159 to 79,434 Chicagoans.

The city numbers for food desert declines exclude underserved residents in the top 10 highest earning neighborhoods, which are: Loop, Lincoln Park, Forest Glen, Edison Park, Lakeview, Near South Side, North Center, Mt. Greenwood, Beverly, and Norwood Park.

These communities were excluded because they were not as affected by food-related health issues, and in contrast, a survey by the Sinai Health System profiled several Chicago low-income minority communities and “found significantly higher levels of food-related diseases.”

The research showed that, for example, about 38 percent of the adults in the Chicago community of Roseland and 41 percent in the community of North Lawndale were found to be overweight or obese in 2004, compared to 23 percent of residents in the wealthier community of Norwood Park.

Chicago community representation of a food desert. A food desert is area where residents live at least a mile from a large supermarket or grocery store, where they can buy quality meats, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Graphic courtesy of

Among the Chicago’s plans to improve health in lower income communities is the Green Healthy Neighborhoods (GHN) initiative that is working with lower income communities – including Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park, Woodlawn, and parts of New City and Greater Grand Crossing – to implement strategies including the development of urban agriculture districts using large vacant housing lots.

The mayor’s office says that successes in reducing Chicago food deserts – as of August 2013 – have included “the opening and expansion of 15 full-scale grocery stores, and the conversion of two Chicago Transit Authority buses into mobile produce markets in seven neighborhoods in or on the periphery of a food desert.”

Chicago mobile produce market. Photo courtesy of

The city says that it has also “licensed 14 fresh produce carts with half in low food access areas, while launching five new successful farmers markets in the West Side food deserts.

The city adds that these partnerships have produced more than 253,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables “grown on more than 15 acres of urban farms and distributed to 85 restaurants, pantries, grocery stores, farmers markets, and private residents.”


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