Living in a desert. Probably not the number one place any given person would choose to live. Yet, it is estimated that more than half of a million people in Chicago live in what’s called a food desert. Food deserts are large geographic areas that either have no grocery stores or they are located a great distance from the community. Much of what you find in these areas, instead, is fast food restaurants and food marts, which lack the fresh food options all people need. Unfortunately, Chicago isn’t even close to being the only city in the U.S. with deserts like these. Look in areas of Los Angeles, Detroit, Nashville, and many more cities and you will find them. Chances are also good that if you look, you will notice a trend within the people of these communities. Research is showing that many are likely to be an ethnic minority and additionally, likely to be obese.

Last week, some colleagues and I took a trip to the Austin/West Garfield neighborhoods of Chicago to visit a site that has been funded in part over the years via the ELCA Domestic Hunger Grant program. Upon driving through various parts of the neighborhood, it seemed that this part of Chicago could fit the mold of being a food desert. As we made our way to our destination it was hard not to notice the lack of mainstream grocery stores and overabundance of food marts, fast food restaurants, and liquor stores. From what we learned about the population of the neighborhood while visiting the site, it would be extremely difficult for a large portion of the people who live here to find nutritious fresh foods because they would have to travel long distances on public transportation, which can get expensive. In addition, even if someone had the means to get to a grocery store, the food in their own neighborhood is usually hands down cheaper than any fresh food likely would be. Unfortunately though, it is typically highly processed and is not healthy in large portions.

This raises so many questions about how we, as a society, could allow this to be the situation so many people around the nation find themselves in. Why is it so impossible to convince a business to move into a community and provide the very basics to people in need? Why did the grocery stores leave in the first place? The shells of their former buildings still sit vacant, just waiting for a new tenant. How can we let this be swept under the rug and not educate the general public about the problems faced by citizens living in these deserts? Are we not called to stick up for all humanity, even those a few neighborhoods over? I challenge you to take a closer look around as you travel through your towns and cities and neighborhoods. Look at how many, or how few, options you and your neighbors have to make good healthy choices when it comes to food consumption. I’m thankful I have options and don’t find myself in this type of desert, but that doesn’t mean that I can deny it exists. After observing and accepting that this is the way it is now, what can we collectively do as communities to change this in the near future? Check out this story from Tennessee about people who are trying to cope with food deserts in their communities ( and then think about ways you can help the communities around you. Then, most importantly, go out, do it and share your ideas with others.

For more information you can also check out this link and read about the food deserts in Chicago as studied by the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group

~Jessie Fairfax