Farmers markets in food deserts: An oasis or mirage?

By Andrew Morrell and Alex Johnson

Alex Congi (left) shows customers her selection of farm-fresh cheese at the Chicago Farmers Market in Beverly.

Alex Congi (right) shows customers her selection of farm-fresh cheese at the Chicago Farmers Market in Beverly. (Photo by Andrew Morrell)

Most areas of Chicago have no shortage of wealth, police officers or water. But large swaths of the city have a shortage of grocery stores.

Map showing the concentration of grocery stores in Chicago

Map showing the concentration of grocery stores in Chicago. (Data via City of Chicago)

Above are two maps. The first is a heatmap of where grocery stores in Chicago are most concentrated. The second shows the location of Chicago farmers markets. The colors on the heatmap range from red to yellow, with red signifying the most grocery stores in an area. Red blobs dot several areas on the North Side, including Streeterville, west Lincoln Park, the border between Lakeview and Uptown, where large shopping centers take up several city blocks and provide food and amenities for hundreds of thousands each. Scroll down to the south side of the map, though, and the colors get less bright. Go further south from 71st, or any further west than Ashland, and the map becomes very bleak. Extending into the “Wild Hundreds,”south of 95th Street, there is almost nothing. Southwestern communities like Washington Heights and Morgan Park appear barren. Roseland provides one of the only respites from Chicago’s infamous “food deserts” on its South and East Sides.

Food deserts are usually defined by distance from grocery stores, or a lack of the necessary stores per capita that supply fresh produce and nutrient-rich foods. It is no coincidence that food deserts often lie in impoverished communities. Most businesses believe that it is in their best interests to open stores in wealthy areas where they will easily turn a profit. These businesses see low income neighborhoods as areas less invested in healthy eating and therefore less profitable to big grocery chains. If grocery stores are present in low income areas, they generally offer less fresh produce and more processed convenience food.

Visit a city-managed farmers market, and you’ll see some promise. Sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the city will have 22 farmers markets open throughout the city by the middle of the summer. Since his election in 2011, Mayor Emanuel has pushed for more farmers markets to plug the gaps in neighborhoods underserved by grocers. Progress has been slow, however, and despite a new market opening in Englewood this year, a large majority of the markets remain clustered on the North Side.

Yescenia Mota, a manager of farmers markets at DCASE, recognizes the work that needs to be done, but is optimistic for the future.

“The first year might not go so well,” Mota said. “It is a three to five year process. People become accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle that they are comfortable with and it takes a long time to adjust and change.”

Mota believes that in order for this change to occur, the people living in food deserts need to be reeducated on being healthy and eating healthy. However, the process has not been easy and the farmers are paying the price.

“It’s been really hard for us,” Mota said. “We’ve had to subsidize our farmers and lower prices in order to fit the needs of these neighborhoods. “

Mota says the next step is to incorporate more local businesses into these farmers markets. Seeing local businesses thrive and succeed at these markets will quickly spread the word throughout these neighborhoods on the positive aspects of farmers markets. Whether it be local artists, musicians, or chefs, having familiar faces at these markets makes for a more comfortable and trustworthy atmosphere in the neighborhood.

The farmers market in Beverly at 95th and Longwood.

The farmers market in Beverly at 95th and Longwood. (Photo by Andrew Morrell)

One market on the South Side is in Beverly, at 95th and Longwood. Visiting it around noon on a humid Sunday, there was little activity to be seen. In a large parking lot near a library, about six trucks were corralled around each other, each selling various homemade or farm-grown goods. Maybe it was the afternoon heat, but few people had ventured out to peruse the selection. As one vendor recalled it wasn’t always this way.

We met Al (who declined to give his last name) making chit-chat with a local baker. He assured us he was a big shot in the Chicago Farmer’s market scene, or he at least used to be. Upon learning that we were looking to do a story on food deserts, Al was visibly agitated.

“You go to the East Side, there’s no grocery stores,” he said sternly. “Kids go to school, and you know what they eat for breakfast? Flamin’ Hots. And pop.”

Al reminisced about Chicago farmer’s markets in the mid-‘80s, before he says “the bureaucracy” ruined things. He spoke of crowds of people at South Side markets, with live bands and even dancing. No more was this a common sight. Al blames the lack of markets on the South Side on business and bad politics. When the city began to take control of farmer’s markets, they introduced tough regulations on how farmers could operate. This scared many of them off, according to Al. On top of that, any alderman who could afford it now wanted a market in their district. With an abundance of resources and customers, markets on the North Side flourished. The ones on the South Side couldn’t keep up.

This exacerbates the already rampant obesity epidemic among underprivileged populations, including racial minorities, the elderly and the disabled. Healthy food is a requirement for a healthy life, a life people living in food deserts simply don’t have access to.

(Video by Alex Johnson, created in Videolicious)

The vendors at the Beverly market still make do as much as they can. Alex Congi was among the vendors, selling farm fresh cheese at the market. Despite the slowness of days like today, Congi still has faith in the area.

“Beverly has a lot of potential,” she said. “It’s not exactly like you might think it is.”

Another vendor, Kathy Lindgren, was a former flight attendant, laid off six years ago. Upon losing her job, she decided to join her daughter’s business selling organic dog treats. She had them on display at the Beverly Market, wrapped in cellophane and in jars.

“There’s just nice people here,” she remarked. “I like them all really.” While speaking to us, a customer approached Lindgren with a smile.

“I bought these for my dog last week, and she loved them.” Many visitors of the Beverly market are return customers.

The success (or failure) of DCASE’s farmers market program ultimately depends on community involvement. The city must fully engage the communities in which it places its markets, and the communities themselves must support them. It remains to be seen whether the hopeful atmosphere that surrounds the grim situation will begin to pay off anytime soon.

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