On a map of “food deserts” in Chicago, a red bow-tie-shaped splotch covers parts of Englewood, a historically working-class neighborhood on the South Side.
I’m driving through that zone with the man leading the city’s efforts to bring fresh food to communities that need it—Mike Simmons, the policy director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We pass brick houses, many decent and neat, but others boarded-up casualties of the foreclosure crisis. On a side street, two men push a shopping cart piled with heating ducts and other metal fixtures, likely stripped from vacant buildings. Empty lots dot blocks lined with storefront churches and chicken-wing stands. We pass a couple with a cooler and a half-dozen pump bottles for snow-cone flavoring. We pass many corner stores with signs that read Food and Liquor.
We don’t pass any supermarkets.
The residents here are just a fraction of the 23.5 million Americans living in areas with no easy access to fresh food, according to government estimates. As cities like Chicago try to expand food access, vanquishing such areas—now labeled food deserts—has also become a matter of national policy. The Obama administration has pledged to eradicate food deserts by 2017, in the hopes that increasing access to healthy food will stem the country’s obesity and diet-related-disease epidemics and create new jobs in the process.
In this effort, some policy-makers have turned to a surprising—and controversial—corporate partner: Walmart.
In July Michelle Obama announced a joint plan by Walmart, Walgreens and SuperValu, along with three regional chains, to open 1,500 new stores in food deserts across the country. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery retailer, plans to open more than 275 new stores by 2016 in neighborhoods it claims are underserved. At least a dozen will be in Chicago, where the giant was one of a handful of chains invited to the mayor’s food desert summit. There, the city touted various spots, including one on the fringes of Englewood’s food desert, as ripe for development. Simmons is in talks with the chains and working to put together packages of financial incentives, zoning amendments and other accommodations to seal the deals.
“When they know that’s the entree that we’re bringing to them, it tends to yield a very productive conversation,” he says.
As Walmart positions itself as an expedient solution to the food desert problem, critics question whether a retailer known for fostering a low-wage economy and driving small stores and union groceries out of business is a viable ally in the effort to help struggling communities get access to affordable, decent food. The food desert problem, these critics contend, is more about poverty than grocery stores. Some argue that the retailer’s newfound interest in food deserts is a public relations push designed to help it finally gain entry into lucrative urban markets from which it has long been excluded, thanks to grassroots opposition.
LaDonna Redmond, a longtime food justice advocate who leads the Food and Justice Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, puts it bluntly: “Walmart is using the term ‘food desert’ as a Trojan horse to get into our communities and bring about more corporate control of our food system.”
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The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract in which more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population live at least a mile from a supermarket that does at least $2 million in annual sales. In rural areas, anyone living ten miles from such a store is in the desert.
But some community food activists say this measure defines the problem in a way that means that only large grocery stores can solve it. It does not account for the grassroots food infrastructure, made up of food hubs, farmers’ markets, co-ops and farmstands, which have multiplied in recent years as the local food movement has gained traction.