A fruitless search for produce in minority neighborhoods

  • Medill News Service
  • February 01, 2006 @ 5:45 AM
At the El Paseo Bordicua Grocery and Deli in Humboldt Park, you can buy canned beans and fish, Doritos and bread. But you won't find fruits or vegetables. It's the same story, save for canned peaches, at the corner bodega a few blocks east on Division Street.

The nearest Jewel is more than a mile away.

"Grocery stores choose not to come into this neighborhood," said Miguel Angel Morales, the program manager of Community Organized for Obesity Prevention, or CO-OP, in Humboldt Park, a mainly Puerto Rican and Mexican neighborhood.

A 2005 report by the Metro Chicago Information Center found that minority communities tend to have fewer grocery stores and more fast food restaurants and liquor stores.

The lack of fresh produce in some poorer neighborhoods, Morales and other experts say, is contributing to the growing obesity levels in Chicago.

On the south side, Woodlawn, Kenwood and New City neighborhoods have no major grocery store, the Metro Chicago study found.

In Humboldt Park, Morales said, a mom shopping for dinner at her local bodega will probably not find the garlic, cilantro, onions and small, sweet peppers needed for sofrito, the staple of Puerto Rican cooking. Instead, it's easier for her to just buy chips.

Offering the ingredients for sofrito would encourage people to eat homemade, nutritious food, Morales said. CO-OP--Humboldt Park is working with local grocery stores and restaurants to start stocking and using fresh produce.

"Puerto Ricans tend to blame Puerto Rican food" for weight gain, but the problem is the lack of fresh produce in neighborhood stores, he said.

Nutritionists tell people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, said Chris Kierig, communications manager at the Consortium to Lower Childhood Obesity in Chicago, but in certain neighborhoods, it just isn't possible.

The produce in neighborhood stores serving minority communities tends toward low quality and high cost, she said. She added that a shopper's tight budget often means choosing between spoiled fruit or ten boxes of macaroni and cheese.

Neighborhood income is the key determinant as to whether a major grocery store will build there, the Metro Chicago study found. Race and ethnicity, though they may be linked to community neighborhood, do not directly affect where grocery store chains locate.

And until several months ago, Kierig said, city ordinances allowed a major grocery store to close but keep competition restrictions, preventing another grocery store from taking its place. That meant poorer communities could be left without a store when the only major grocery closed.

"There is definitely a correlation between socioeconomic status and obesity," she said, though Chicago's increasing girth is not limited to poorer or minority communities.

Men's Fitness magazine recently named Chicago the fattest city in the nation, and the Chicago Transit Authority announced it is spending $17.2 million for buses with seats half-an-inch wider.

About a quarter of all Chicagoans are obese and Chicago childhood obesity rates are growing at over two-times the national average, Kierig said. Wealthier children are getting fatter too because they get rides instead of walking and have access to fast food and a disposable income for junk food.

"The obesity problem is not caused by one problem," Kierig said. "People always want it to be one thing," like stop eating so much. "You can't just say it is as simple as calories in versus calories out."

What researchers don't have, however, are data comparing city-to-city and neighborhood-to-neighborhood obesity levels, Kierig said. Her organization, along with the Sinai Urban Health Institute and CO-OP--Humboldt Park, is studying obesity in Chicago's neighborhoods.

In September 2004, Morales and others interviewed 517 Humboldt Park residents and calculated their body mass index during a Puerto Rican street festival. Thirty-eight percent of the people were overweight and 36 percent obese. Forty-seven percent of the children were obese.

CO-OP--Humboldt Park is searching for a practical solution to curb obesity. Last year, they drove weekly to a Michigan farm to harvest fresh produce. They are now building community gardens to grow the produce their grocery stores don't carry and are creating exercise programs for the community.

"We need an attitude change," Morales said. "Without an attitude change, you can be told obesity is not healthy and it won't matter."

The obesity trend, however, is spreading nationwide, thanks to cheap snack food with empty calories, less physical activity and less manual labor on jobs, said Thayne Munce, a University of Illinois-Chicago clinical assistant professor.

"The last 20 years has skyrocketed the rate of obesity," he said. "Our goal now is not to reduce the trend, but to keep the rates from increasing."

In 1991, no states had obesity levels above 20 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, only seven states have obesity levels lower than 20 percent. In the majority of states, like Illinois, 20 to 24 percent of residents are obese.