Absence of grocery stores plague South Side

Ten years ago LaDonna Redmond never thought she would become a pioneer for food justice in Chicago. But her son, Wade, was diagnosed with severe food allergies and she was left with no choice. 

"It was pretty difficult. I had to travel around to figure out where to get food in addition to figuring out food," says Redmond, who lived on the West Side at the time.

Since then, Redmond says she's been battling the stereotype that African-Americans just aren't interested in healthy foods.

Now, after working for a decade to create access to healthier food choices in neighborhoods with few grocery stores, Redmond will open her own fresh produce store by the end of the month. Her store, Graffiti and Grub will be located near the Englewood and Washington Park neighborhoods.

An initial report in 2006 showed more than a half a million Chicagoans live in food deserts, or areas where residents have no grocery store. African-Americans are primarily victims of food deserts, as the South Side has the largest food deserts. 

The original report stated that, "In a typical African-American block, the nearest grocery store is roughly twice as distant as the nearest fast food restaurant."

The 2009 progress report states that the food desert on Chicago's South Side has shrunk by roughly 24,000 people or approximately 1.4 square miles.

In comparison to the 2006 study, report author Mari Gallagher analyzed the health improvements that come with addition of a full-service grocer, and says it provides lots of benefits to the community.

"We predicate the additional life that would be brought back from debilitating diseases like diabetes if a grocery store moves in," says Gallagher.

For example, the study cites that if a grocery store were added to 11500 S. Michigan, 15.46 lives would be saved from diabetes, 58.39 from cancer, 111.81 from cardivascular disease and 12.90 from liver disease.

After the 2006 study was released, Rick and Deadra Montgomery also became activisits for food justice and started their own Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, offering those on the South Side fresh local produce.

Rick Montgomery says you see many CSAs north of Hyde Park, but few are located south. The Montgomery's brought the Chi-Town CSA to the South Side and said the goal is to have digital signs throughout food desert areas advertising the Chi-Town CSA. The monitors will be located in public areas like day-cares, barber-shops and dry cleaners, says Rick Montgomery.

The Montgomery's next move in eliminating the South Side food desert is a greenhouse that grows fresh food.

"[We want to] create a process where young African-American men can manage and farm these green houses and create skill sets for themselves," he says.

It may have been a struggle to find adequate food for her son, but in the end, Redmond says it was a blessing in disguise.

"His allergies were a gift, which allowed me and many, many other people to show how we could change the world. So, he actually brought quite a gift to us," says Redmond.

Gallagher, the report author, says when it comes to food deserts, everybody can do something, and every little bit helps.

"There's not one single problem and not one single solution," says Gallagher. "All of these actions could make a real difference."