The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Fresh Produce to Food Deserts: Spotlight on Chicago

Fresh Produce to Food Deserts: Spotlight on Chicago

In the News

September 26, 2010

The lack of access to healthy foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods is a mounting problem across the nation. An estimated 103 million Americans will be obese by 2018, and limited access to full service grocery stores and fresh produce is fueling this growing epidemic. 

The USDA reports that 23.5 million people live in “food deserts.” In these under-served areas where consumers live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by. Instead, there is often easy access to fast food and more affordable, pre-packaged, higher-calorie items at the local convenience store. To combat this issue, many cities are attempting to improve access to fresh, locally grown food by bringing in produce and other healthy items to underserved neighborhoods.

The Chicago-based City Produce Project is one such collaboration between rural farmers and urban institutions being funded by Monsanto and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. 

Here’s how the City Produce Project program works. Vegetables are produced by local farmers at six different sites – including the Cook County Jail garden – as well as by University of Illinois Extension master gardeners and researchers. Ten additional growbox sites throughout the Chicago area add to the bounty. Tens of thousands of pounds of fresh veggies are then distributed throughout the growing season by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. 

“Our goal was to target some of the food deserts and supply fresh produce through the churches. They had already established food pantries and monthly food deliveries coming from Greater Chicago Food Depository, but these items were typically extras from grocery stores and often bruised and damaged, so having produce that was actually grown fresh as an option has been a real treat for participants,” says Drusilla Banks, Extension Specialist, Food Science and Nutrition Programming for University of Illinois Extension at Wright College. 

Once participants get their hands on fresh produce, the education component comes into play. Through classes at area churches affiliated with the University of Chicago Medical Center Acts of Faith community program, nutrition staff members teach participants how to store, wash and prepare fresh produce while also giving them the basic nutritional value of the produce they are working with. Classes are six lessons per session, and in the end, there is a small graduation ceremony. In each class, they try to do food demonstrations or bring food to sample with some of the fresh vegetables that are in season. They’ve had three graduations so far, and two more are set to graduate soon.

But the project is not without its challenges. This year, wet weather in the spring and summer delayed the harvesting of a large portion of the Extension production. Thankfully, though, warmer weather in recent weeks enabled the program to continue. Fresh vegetables are currently being delivered, and deliveries will continue at least through the end of October. This season’s crop includes leafy greens, sweet corn, snap beans, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, peppers, squash, okra and fresh herbs.

“Essentially we are trying to make these communities aware of what fresh produce is like. Locally grown produce delivered within hours of harvest has a higher nutritional value, and this should resonate with the folks we are delivering our produce to,” says Bill Shoemaker, Senior Research Specialist, Food Crops, for the University of Illinois St. Charles Horticulture Research Center. “Our effort is to educate these communities so that they understand that not only is eating this fresh produce pleasant, but also that it has excellent nutritional benefits in the hope that they will make room in their diets for these kind of foods.”

The Chicago program is unique in that it brings together research hospitals, health clinics, academics and agriculture industry representatives, all with the common goal of improving the lives of the people that live in low income communities. And even though the program is new, they already have some success stories. Banks says that people are incorporating fresh veggies into their meals and that their families are enjoying it. 

“One woman said she was eating fresh vegetables every day, and this was not something she had ever done before. Another woman told us she had lost 10 pounds simply by adding vegetables to her diet,” says Banks.

In the future, both Shoemaker and Banks hope to see this type of program extend to other cities and states. To make programs like these take hold and improve the lives of those participating, sustainable connections would need to be created between food desert communities and local grower communities, they say.

“What has led to some of these food deserts is a food distribution model in this country that favors distance production. We could have a more sustainable local production system, but we need a small supply chain from the country directly into the heart of the city, and it needs to be profitable. I think there are elements in the metro area that would be interested in this type of system, and I’m fairly optimistic that it would be possible to make it a profitable venture,” says Shoemaker.

Banks adds, “I think that there is plenty of land around to do this sort of programming, but programs like these need seed money, both literally and figuratively, to get off the ground. In the months and years to come we will be measuring behavior changes and improving the program in the hopes that it can become a model for other food desert communities.”

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