02/01/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

44 Square Miles of Forgotten Men

The word "Food Desert" was coined to describe Chicago. It was in our city -- in the shadow of the Sears Tower and the Eisenhower Expressway, by the smoking factories lining the south shore and the rusting truss bridges eternally raised along the river -- that the crisis was first noticed and the alarm bell first sounded. The inaugural article, published in 2006 by Mari Gallagher, pointed out three swaths of land within the city limits of Chicago that together comprise forty-four square miles without adequate access to fresh produce (that's nearly a fifth of the land within the city limits).

Those gritty yet endearing sites familiar to any Chicagoan -- the factories, the bridges, the crisscrossed highways and abandoned train yards -- point to something else important about Chicago's culinary history: the city's growth was based on food. Chicago became a wealthy and bustling urban center because it was where grain from the Great Plains was funneled to cities in the East and it was where animals grown on those plains were converted into meat and also sent eastward. The Windy City was a crucial component in the development of nationwide channels of food production and distribution. Is it possible that Chicago will now become a crucial location for rethinking food production and distribution? Not a location for swearing off national-scale food systems, but a place for altering those systems so that they can do what they are supposed to do -- bring healthy food to every American?

A few weeks ago I had the chance to talk with the Policy Director for Rahm Emanuel's office, Mike Simmons, about his vision for the city. Mike witnessed historic policy changes during his time in Washington, DC in 2008, before coming to Chicago to work for Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer. Gainer became a mentor who incorporated principles of community organizing into her politics and taught Simmons the value of speaking directly to residents.

Because Mike approaches health and sustainability from a policy perspective he works with a different set of tools than individuals who approach these issues from corporate or philanthropic sectors. But just like leaders in those sectors, Mike spoke again and again about the importance of collaboration. Mike emphasized that his office's role is to create the legal framework that allows and encourages certain behaviors (for instance in July the Mayor's office passed a groundbreaking Urban Agricultural Ordinance that amended city zoning codes and will make it significantly easier for communities to turn vacant lots into gardens and farms!) Ultimately though, it is the collaboration of outside organizations that turns those policy decisions into a reality.

Mike's words gave me hope that maybe the Emanuel administration can make Chicago famous again for the very thing that made it grow in the first place -- innovation in the food system. When Franklin D. Roosevelt said that, "Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men, and no forgotten races," he was not concerned about the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, but his charge applies no less to the health-related inequalities that exist today. Mayor Daley focused on making Chicago a green city. Could food be Mayor Emanuel's legacy? Can the Emanuel administration truly make Chicago the city in a garden? Can they make the city that works, work for everyone?

From where you're sitting, what does success look like four years from now? More specifically, what does our food system look like?

One of the mayor's top priorities has been getting healthy food into every community in Chicago. We've already rolled out several strategies toward that end. They are oriented around everything from public health, to urban agriculture, to alternative food distribution strategies and grocery stores.

Over the next four years, success in the food system will inevitably be linked with economic development. We're living through some of the most difficult economic times in recent history. All of our policy goals ought to be tied to economic development and community empowerment. Food policy is largely uncharted territory. Right now in Chicago and Cook County, we are creating a blueprint for the food systems of the twenty-first century. We are pioneering answers to a set of important questions: what is the best way to produce food for Chicago residents? What is the most sustainable and equitable way to distribute that food? What is the most effective way to encourage healthy eating habits? What is the most valuable way to measure access to food? The answers to those questions could lead us to whole new ranges of economic activity that don't exist locally right now at high scale. New forms of food production (for instance, urban agriculture) and new grocery stores will create new jobs.

In four years, success will mean eliminating food deserts. That will require not only building more grocery stores, but also opening grocery stores that invest in communities and provide programming around nutrition education. We want the grocery store to become a community anchor and an institution over which people feel a sense of ownership.

Success also means new urban farms. It means creative farmers' markets. We're going to establish five farmers' markets on the West Side next summer that will also host robust programming such as music, arts, and cooking demonstrations to make the markets more successful and attractive to the communities.

Capital-intensive aquaponics systems will also be a critical component for success. Aquaponics is a whole new way of doing agriculture that integrates fish and plants into one system. We are looking aggressively right now at a number of options that would allow us to put vacant buildings to use, and aquaponics systems and indoor farms are good candidates for spaces like that. Allowing and encouraging aquaponics establishes the City of Chicago as a pioneer in the search for new systems of urban ecology and urban sustainability.

I'm curious to hear more specifically about how your role fits into this vision, and how other organizations can help you drive change.

The policy team's role here in the Mayor's office is to take a hard look at the city, think about the challenges that are at the top of the Mayor's priority list, and find opportunities to improve things and make the city great. We work to develop new ideas and new policy proposals that can address the city's needs in ways that are worthwhile and work for the city as a whole.

A lot of our partners are businesses, nonprofits and community organizations, and we need them in order to make real change in the city. We can't talk about any of our policy proposals without working with organizations like Growing Power, Growing Home and The Plant, which use those policies to create jobs for people in their communities. We can create policies or change ordinances to referee the game, so to speak - to make sure that the rules in place allow organizations to serve the needs of the community. A vivid example of this process occurred last year, when the Mayor was running for office and noticed that there were a number of people on the Southside creating urban farms and community gardens. It struck him as a powerful form of beautification and a great way to empower communities to grow their own food. He also recognized the importance of allowing kids to see the whole process that brings food to their plates - from growing it in the garden to cooking and eating it. The research has shown that children who know how food is prepared are more likely to have healthy eating habits, and that incorporating hands-on lessons about food and gardening can help kids focus more on their other studies. This could be a vital component of a young person's education. As a response, we worked to create a policy that facilitates the creation of community gardens.

Urban agriculture is just one example of how city government works with outside organizations to effect change. In so much of what we do, we have to work with partners on the outside: the community leaders, the residents, and the organizations that collectively advocate on behalf of residents.

My role here is to coordinate and manage the day-to-day policy development that comes out of our policy team. One of the things I've asked the policy team to do is to visit a nonprofit, library, homeless shelter, or other organization periodically. I want them to see the city and think about the policies we write. We shouldn't be making policy here in a silo; we should be able to see how things play out in the city.

Is there a personal memory about a family dinner or favorite meal that you would like to share?

The first thing that this question brings to mind is a memory that's fairly recent. My mom's birthday was September 15th, and this year I decided to cook her dinner. I bought a bunch of vegetables and set them on the counter. When my mom saw me chopping vegetables, she asked what I was doing.

"I'm making dinner," I said. "Aren't you excited?"

"Making dinner?" She said incredulously. "What do you mean making dinner? Did you get pizza on the way?"

"No, no, no," I said. "I'm going to make us kale soup." I'm not sure whether she'd ever eaten kale before.

"Ok," she said, "but whatever this thing is, just make sure it's good."

An hour and a half later I was watching the pot simmer. I was not feeling very confident because I'd never tried a recipe like this before. When the soup was ready I ladled it into bowls and we started eating. My mom and sister noticed that there were five or six different vegetables in the soup that they'd never eaten before. I was never a big vegetable eater before this year, but when they asked me what the vegetables were I was able to explain.

"Well, that's kale," I said, "and that's chard."

When my mother asked the significance of all of these vegetables, I was able to explain their nutritional significance. For thirty minutes we talked about things that we don't usually talk about at the dinner table: the actual food that we were eating. Everybody was interested and engaged, and they liked the food. The experience of trying a new recipe and watching the conversation evolve was transformative.