By Ava O’Malley
Ernest Crim III regularly takes his 300,000 TikTok followers on Black history field trips. In a recent video, Crim brought viewers on a virtual tour through the South Side food desert in which he grew up. At the beginning of the video, he points out the link between elevated levels of heart disease in the Black community and lack of access to fresh foods in divested neighborhoods—such as those on the South and West Sides.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. It has been since 1921, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), with 659,000 Americans now losing their lives to heart disease each year, placing it above both cancer and COVID-19.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, Black Americans were 30% more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic White Americans, and African American women were 60% more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. On top of this, the American Heart Association states Black Americans suffer from high blood pressure more than any other group in the world.
Heart disease can be caused by many factors: genetics, smoking, stress, and, most applicably, diet and exercise. If you live in a food desert, your chances of developing heart disease skyrocket due to lack of access to nutritious foods.
Crim, the author of Black History Saved My Life: How My Viral Hate Crime Led to an Awakening (2020), filmed several shuttered food shops on the South Side in his latest field trip video, published on June 13.
“This spot right here used to be called Platinum Foods,” Crim said, pointing his camera toward a weedy lot and one-story building with a torn red awning. “Ain’t looking so platinum right now. It’s been empty for over 15 years.”
The CDC defines a food desert as an area in which residents live more than a mile away from the nearest fresh food source, emphasis on fresh. Although it is possible to buy food in a food desert, the options often are limited, highly processed, and low in nutritional value.
In June, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill introduced by local Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper (D-6th) to create the Healthy Food Program Development Act, which Governor JB Pritzker signed on June 9. Harper hopes this new law will address Chicago’s food deserts and usher in sustainable change.
Harper has experience connecting communities to fresh food, having worked with South Side urban agriculture organization Growing Home and helping co-found Grow Greater Englewood. She also founded her own community garden, the Wood Street Meet and Greet Garden, located between residences in the 6100 block of south Wood Street.
Harper, who chairs the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee, connects her passion for food justice to her life-long residency within a food desert. It also comes from the tragedy of losing middle-aged family members to diet related diseases, an experience Crim shares.
“We are dying,” Harper said. “We are having shorter life spans and dying from preventable diet-related health issues that are at a much higher rate than any other group of people, period. The majority of areas where we are seeing these health issues are the same places where we are seeing food deserts, and that is the South and West Sides of the city.”
Diet-related illness “is like an IV—it drips slowly,” said Crim. “This is something that is killing us daily.”
“It’s hard for us to attract healthy food retailers to the area, and when we do get them, it’s hard for them to stay,” Harper continued.
Whole Foods flees
This year, many Chicagoans were left baffled when Whole Foods closed two locations, one at Halsted and 63rd Streets and the other near DePaul University’s Lincoln Park Campus.
Whole Foods announced the 63rd Street store’s closure in April, after it had been open for six years. Bronzeville, Englewood, and other local residents relied on this store not only to eliminate the food desert but to support local businesses and provide jobs.
“I was devastated and hurt along with the other community members,” said Harper.
She feels Whole Foods broke its promises to the community.
“We didn’t ask for them in the first place,” Harper said, recalling the several visits Whole Foods officials made to the Growing Home farm.
She noted that, when Whole Foods opened, “they came with certain benefits or community engagement initiatives that helped to build the relationship between the company and the community, and we really thought it was going to work out. They came in saying that they wanted to be a part of that work in creating a local healthy food system, and that it was not a decision made with the intention of profitability, but rather a decision that they were making with their hearts.”
In the end, Whole Foods representatives stated it closed the two Chicago stores due to low profit.
The Healthy Food Program Development Act is more needed than ever, as two Aldi locations closed on the West and South Sides recently. Last year, Garfield Park’s Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St. closed down, with the City later acquiring the property in hopes of attracting a new food store. More recently, the Aldi on 7627 S. Ashland Ave, closed in June. Signs directed former patrons to the new Englewood Aldi, over three miles away.
Siri Hibbler, Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce CEO, is concerned with both the amount of properties that the City of Chicago owns on the West Side, but also with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s apparent lack of urgency to bring in food suppliers to the neighborhood.
The City “owns all this land in Garfield Park,” Hibbler said. “If you own all this in Garfield Park, then you know it’s a food desert. You say you want to end poverty? Didn’t [Lightfoot] have a poverty summit in 2020? I know she did, because I attended. [Lightfoot] did all this stuff for show, because she did nothing to make a difference in our community, period. She hasn’t done anything but put an outdoor skate park on Madison and Pulaski.”
Hibbler is skeptical of both the City and big developers’ promise to bring in grocery stores to the area, primarily because of the low median income of the neighborhood.
“Could be the big developers are waiting for change to happen, and the change is we need to get more people in the community with higher incomes,” Hibbler said. “So that when we build, we’ve got people who can support what we’re building financially.”
The Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce took several initiatives to fight food injustice and inaccessibility in the last few years. During the pandemic, GPCC distributed hundreds of grocery packages to seniors and families with children.
Alderwoman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) stated that her office will continue to pursue Pete’s Fresh Market as a potential grocer in Bronzeville, noting that while “the Bronzeville Mariano’s, Jewel, and Walmart provide adequate food shopping choices, more quality fresh food options are needed,” Dowell said. “My office, pre pandemic, was pursuing Pete’s Fresh Market and it is my hope that Pete’s continues to be interested in a Bronzeville location. My office also supports the urban farms, farmers markets, and food offerings at Boxville.”
Harper’s bill, which passed after Whole Foods announced its departure, aims to combat food deserts on a State level. The HB 2382 Healthy Food Program Development Bill seeks to increase the number of healthful food retailers in food deserts across the State in urban, suburban, and rural areas by opening up coordination between the State’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Harper emphasized the role of State agencies in implementing the bill, especially regarding the commercial distribution system for bringing fresh produce to retailers in areas with limited access to healthful options. Such retailers include small corner stores, which often serve as the main food sources for residents in food deserts.
“How can we help the stores that we already have to become healthier food retailers, and how can we usher and bring in even more of these food retailers?” Harper said, summing up the reason for the Healthy Food Access Program.
With proper implementation, the bill will help food deserts across the State of Illinois begin to see more healthful options stocking the shelves as well as new food retailers moving in, permanently.