Food Deserts Are Their Own Pandemic Hot Spots
Amid horrifying Covid-19 racial disparities, America needs to expand access to healthy food
There are a great many factors that have made African American communities more vulnerable to Covid-19. Economic disparities, unequal access to health care, and legacies of discrimination all unquestionably play big roles. But anecdotal evidence suggests that something else is also at work. Within Chicago, African American neighborhoods with nearby access to grocery stores boast a lower Covid-19 mortality rate than those that remain food deserts. And while access to nutrition isn’t a panacea for the deep-seated issues that undermine access to the American dream, the absence of fresh food is a telltale sign of curtailed opportunity.
The disparities are remarkable and must not be overlooked. Woodlawn, a predominantly African American neighborhood on the city’s South Side, not far from the University of Chicago, was without a grocery store for 47 years until Jewel opened a new facility in 2019. Today, the neighborhood has a Covid-19 mortality rate of 2.1 deaths per every 10,000 residents. Austin, a neighborhood on the far West Side that’s just over the border from the prosperous suburb of Oak Park, remains today without sufficient access to fresh food. The rate there is more than three times as high — 7.5 deaths per 10,000 people. The same distinction is true when you compare Bronzeville with North Lawndale and any number of other neighborhoods.
My brother the doctor will inevitably complain that I’m not academically qualified to weigh the impact of food access against education, income, and density of living. But I’ve got a hunch. Those who have succumbed to Covid-19 have disproportionately been afflicted by preexisting conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity. In areas where meal choices are limited to Burger King and 7-Eleven, residents are almost inevitably going to face a greater struggle to bring down their blood pressure and stay healthy. Fortunately, policymakers over the years have developed a raft of new tools on hand to expand access to fresh groceries.
When I became Chicago’s mayor, studies indicated that more than 400,000 Chicagoans lived in food deserts, meaning they had to travel more than a mile to purchase fresh food. So I invited local grocery executives to City Hall and argued that any chain that wanted to claim that it was a “Chicagoland” store needed to serve all parts of Chicago. That meant opening new branches in underserved locations. Many were initially skeptical, convinced that stores in minority neighborhoods would weigh down their bottom lines. But working collaboratively with my administration, several answered the call, with a half-dozen new stores opening in formerly bereft neighborhoods. What’s more, several chains have come to realize that there’s good business to be done in neighborhoods they hadn’t before considered serving. The Bronzeville Mariano’s, located in the central hub of Chicago’s South Side African American community, has proven to be a thriving success.
Eliminating food deserts isn’t simply about ensuring that every child eats their vegetables — it’s a key to solving the more comprehensive problems that afflict corners of urban, suburban, and rural America alike.
But this problem is bigger than any brick-and-mortar solution. Inspired both by first lady Michelle Obama’s work at the White House and Milwaukee’s success reclaiming fallow industrial sites, we made a big push to expand Chicago’s urban farming. Working with local nonprofits, we were able to expand the space available to grow fruits and vegetables inside Chicago’s city limits nine times over and even assisted in building the country’s first certified organic urban farm. Then, to distribute the produce grown on those urban farms, the city donated three public buses to a nonprofit partner, Growing Power, which retrofitted them to become mobile, food-stamp-accepting grocery stores (think of the Good Humor van but with fruits and vegetables), and began scheduling regular runs in communities without access.
With help from Washington, we could take all of this a step further. The Opportunity Zone program, which was established decades ago to breathe new life into economically deprived neighborhoods, was expanded in the tax-cutting bill President Donald Trump signed in 2017. Today, it has become in too many cases a subsidy for real estate developers working on the margins of otherwise thriving neighborhoods. To use an existing program to address this scourge, Opportunity Zone tax breaks should be directed at developers who agree to prioritize grocery stores and then hire local residents to fill the attending jobs. That would not only improve forlorn neighborhoods and expand economic opportunity — it would almost surely improve health outcomes as well.
One risk coming out of the pandemic is that we limit the scope of our analysis to our public health system alone, which clearly needs vast improvements. But as every mayor knows, a community’s challenges are almost invariably linked together. Poverty, health care, education, job access, and public transportation layer one on top of another. Eliminating food deserts isn’t simply about ensuring that every child eats their vegetables — it’s a key to solving the more comprehensive problems that afflict corners of urban, suburban, and rural America alike. If we’re going to improve health outcomes and longevity in every corner of the country, we need to take approaches that have worked to improve health in cities and apply them nationwide.