THE BLOG
10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Brother, Can You Spare an Apple?

You can't choose healthy foods if you don't have access to them. And that's the dilemma faced by millions of residents in the "Food Deserts" of America.

A food desert is a geographic area with no, or distant, grocery stores often served by plenty of fast food restaurants. In our 2006 breakthrough study, Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, we identified a half-million Chicagoans who live in the Food Desert. These residents are more likely to die and suffer prematurely from diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The relationship is what we researchers call "statistically significant." Many factors, such as personal choice, contribute to health, but location matters. If an apple is further away than a burger, then the chances of choosing fresh food more often than fast food is a mirage.

We have conducted similar studies in Detroit, rural Michigan, Louisville, Harlem, Richmond, and other areas. Chicago is not alone in its Food Desert dilemma, although it is a leader in advancing solutions.

This is why we picked the Windy City to launch the first-ever National Food Desert Awareness Month (September) with an Aug. 31 rally in the Far South Side neighborhood of Roseland, a Food Desert. The awareness month is sponsored by the National Center for Public Research, an organization I helped found to provide meaningful and unbiased data and information to improve quality of life, quality of health, and financial well-being.

At the kick-off rally, Roseland participants waved signs that read "Our Community Eats Organic," "Welcome, Grocers!" and "My Baby Digs Fresh Vegetables." One sixteen-year-old girl held up a sign with a simple, one-word request: "Grapes!"

There were no grapes on hand. Instead, Rodney Scaman, co-founder of Goodness Greeness - the largest privately-held organic produce distributor in the U.S. - distributed 1,300 Pink Pearl apples as a reminder of the link between food choice and health. The apples went quickly. But as Scaman told the Chicago Tribune and various TV newscasters filming the event, if you want to buy a Pink Pearl apple in Chicago, you have to head to the city's North Side or beyond to the North Shore suburbs. They're a rare find in Roseland.

Which brings me back to the issue of location.

Throughout my entire first career as a community development practitioner, I learned hard lessons about location. Long ago, I managed a commercial strip on the far Southeast Side of Chicago that had an unsightly, sloping, vacant lot in the heart of the district, strewn with litter and tires. On my first day on the job, I was informed that a man was recently chased down and beaten to death there. A policeman, thinking back on the incident, shook his head and said matter-of-factly, "This is a pretty bad location."

It was. Gangs. Drugs. Violence. Commercial decay. Something had to be done. Working with the community we turned the vacant lot into a garden. It sprouted flowers, vegetables, an art show, and even a wedding. For lots of reasons, it eventually improved on the location radar, to the extent that the land became more valuable and demand for it increased. The private sector built a storefront on the site several years later and the garden was no more. The land returned to its intended function. The business district became bustling and vibrant. In community development, and in neighborhood markets, too, the cycle of boom, bust, and revival is always a local condition.

It is the same with public health. Local land use decisions are, in many respects, public health decisions. And while one plot of land does not directly cause either life or death, community revitalization or decline, it certainly can influence those outcomes. As far back as 1926, the Supreme Court rendered an opinion that government has a responsibility to promote and protect public health, and that government can therefore control land use to that end. So to be a community planner and not care about health, or to be a health official and not care about the built environment, means opportunities are lost.

But there is another dimension of lost opportunities: the market.

Much of my time at my research firm is spent conducting market studies for private companies. We calculate buying power and local demand for all kinds of products and services. We identify the competition. We write long and highly technical explanations about agglomeration and how like attracts like in the world of retail. The vast majority of these studies never become public. We understand that.

The National Center for Public Research makes its information available to the public and asks different kinds of questions. Here's one: can the market do well by doing some good? Why not?
In Chicago alone we have identified a half-million-plus people who live in a Food Desert with no or distant grocery stores but nearby access to fast food. A substantial number of them are single mothers and children. My guess is that women, more than anyone else, know the importance of food to stitching together the delicate continuum of life. It is ironic that these women are the most disenfranchised from the food market given that they probably value and understand it more than any other consumer group.

And by the way, not everyone in the Food Desert is poor. In the Chicago food desert, there are 203,369 households of which:

• 63,355 or 31% have an annual income of $50,000 or more

• 29,561 or 14% have an annual income of $75,000 or more

• 14,194 or 7% have an annual income of $100,000 or more

Food is indeed our most basic common denominator, arguably more than housing or any other good. We all need food regularly to live, but our response to food as a commodity differs. The National Center for Public Research aims to bring all these different perspectives together and provide them all with the same neutral, unbiased, high quality data and information so that they can continue the dialog on safe ground.

So back to solutions to the Food Desert. There are many in Chicago and around the country. We will be blogging about them all this month, answering questions, and responding to comments.
Let's talk about the market and how to get these deals done. Let's talk about the challenges to healthy food and exercise. Let's talk about the food system. Let's talk about USDA "Food Stamp" retailers that are really liquor stores. Let's talk policy. Let's talk action.

On September 23, we will co-convene an invitation-only Grocer Expo with the City of Chicago. On September 30th, we will release an updated Food Desert analysis that reflects all the grocers that have moved in and out of Chicago since our 2006 study.

After September, we will move on to other topics, providing data and analysis. Your ideas are welcome. Feel free to post your comments or write to me privately at mari@marigallagher.com.

We look forward to hearing from you.