I can't tell you much about organic food.
I can't tell you how it's grown. I can't tell you why it's healthier. And I can't tell you where to find it. Until a few years ago, I never thought much about organic food and was pretty content with my diet of fast food, cereal and beer.
But when my 4-year old daughter was an infant, she was diagnosed with an array of food allergies. The list of what she can't eat is almost as long as the list of things that she can. Off limits were wheat, gluten, soy, barley, nuts, fish and eggs. And she has mild allergies to rice, corn and milk.
That eliminated much of what I was accustomed to eating, and I quickly became an obsessive ingredients-label reader. Routine trips to the grocery store for staples like bread, crackers, pasta, mayo and snacks suddenly became treasure hunts. Outside of fruits and vegetables, few of the foods my daughter can eat are found at your neighborhood grocery store. Well, I guess that depends on your neighborhood.
Grocery stores are pretty sparse in Auburn Gresham, where I live, and many other predominantly black communities on Chicago's South Side. Some of those stores offer a limited selection of foods my daughter can eat but not nearly as much as those grocers that specialize in organic foods or that cater to vegetarians and vegans.
We found our buried, alternative-foods treasure at Whole Foods Market. The catch was that it's 10 miles from my home. I consider myself lucky. If not for the gentrifying South Loop area, I wouldn't have that one, either. Instead, I'd have to travel to the city's North Side for a Whole Foods. There are five Whole Foods stores in Chicago and fourteen in the entire metropolitan area. None are in black neighborhoods in Chicago, and none are in south suburban Cook County, which is predominantly black.
That may not come as a surprise, especially if you believe that black consumers don't want or don't need organic food. But you'd be wrong.
A 2007 survey showed that black consumers more often bought organic food in the past year than white consumers. In another survey last year, a higher percentage of black respondents said they would pay 10 percent more for organic products than white respondents. Closer to home, there are more farmers markets held in Chicago's black neighborhoods than in the city's white neighborhoods.
"It's easier to find a semi-automatic weapon in our communities than it is to find a tomato, much less an organic tomato," laments LaDonna Redmond, an African-American food justice advocate. Black folks, like Redmond, have been growing organic food on urban farms for years. Redmond began growing organic food in her backyard after her son, like my daughter, was diagnosed with severe food allergies. From my backyard, I can see one of those farms on the grassy banks of the railroad tracks alongside 75th Street.
These urban farms aren't on every corner, and these urban farmers aren't located in every South Side or south suburban household. But there are enough of them to dispel any belief that African-Americans have no need or interest in organic foods or alternative diets.