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Michelle Obama Urges Mayors to Adopt Chicago’s Food-Desert Fight

Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Michelle Obama returned to her hometown yesterday to implore mayors across the U.S. to follow the lead of Chicago, which has shrunk the size of its so-called food deserts, where families can’t easily buy healthy foods.

“Think about all the neighborhoods that could be transformed, because people want to live in communities where they have resources,” Obama said in Chicago following a summit hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on strategies to increase the availability of healthy, affordable food in underserved communities. “And a grocery store -- a good-quality grocery store -- is the first step.”

The first lady joined Emanuel and eight other mayors, along with chief executive officers of several food retailers. Emanuel announced one of Chicago’s major urban farm networks, Growing Power, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Walgreen Co. and Aldi to sell locally grown produce. The farms would offer job opportunities and economic development.

The mayor also said the city has commitments for 36 food stores to be added in the next couple of years, including 17 traditional stores such as SuperValu, Roundy’s, Aldi and Wal-Mart, and 19 expanded Walgreens drugstores.

The summit follows a report earlier this week that the number of Chicagoans living in areas without easy access to fresh foods has declined 39 percent in the past five years. The population in food deserts shrank to 383,954 from 632,974 in 2006, according to the report by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group.

Mayors Across America

“Imagine what we could achieve if mayors across the country started taking on this issue,” Obama said at a Walgreens on the city’s south side that was expanded to offer produce and other healthy grocery items in an area that had lacked convenient access. Obama has advocated for healthful eating and exercise since starting her Let’s Move! initiative in February 2010.

After the food summit, Obama was scheduled to visit an urban farm with Emanuel, then attend a fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.

Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, is adding stores through its “urban oasis” project that carry about 750 more food items, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Food desert” is defined in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 as an area “with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.” About 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are deemed food deserts, according to the White House website.

Quenching Food Deserts

The summit followed Emanuel’s June meeting with six retailers about eliminating food deserts in the North Lawndale, Douglas, Englewood, Chatham, Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods.

More stores are offering produce and other healthy foods in strategic locations, Mari Gallagher, principal of the research group based in the city, said in a telephone interview. Yet one in seven Chicagoans still lacks access to healthy food. They include 124,000 children, enough to “fill to capacity 2,484 school buses,” according to Gallagher’s report.

Gallagher proposes moving up the target date for elimination of food deserts in Chicago to 2015, from the 2020 set by Emanuel.

Fighting Poverty

The food desert problem is more about poverty than grocery stores, Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business,” said in a telephone interview.

“Saving a few hundred dollars a year on food is not solving the problem,” he said. “Higher wages and more employment will.”

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pledged in July to open or expand as many as 300 stores by 2016 under Obama’s campaign to provide more nutritious food in poor rural and urban areas.

The drive may help make not just this generation of children healthier, but the next as well, Obama said.

“Don’t underestimate the power of what is going on here,” she said. “This is big stuff.”

The first lady’s book “American Grown: How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspired Families, Schools and Communities” will be published in April, Crown Publishing Group said yesterday. The book explores “how improved access to fresh, locally grown food can promote healthier eating habits for families and communities,” Crown said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Blair Euteneuer in Chicago at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts at

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