Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel stood at a podium outside the new Save-A-Lot at 8240 South Stony Island Avenue on March 3 and praised the discount grocery chain for its commitment to fighting the food-desert problem. The store was one of five locations the company opened on the South Side in late February.
“Six-hundred thousand Chicagoans do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Emanuel began, citing a statistic from a 2009 food-desert study by the Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group. “The notion that people do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables is unconscionable, and you cannot have that today.”
Though there’s no universally accepted definition of a food desert, Save-A-Lot spokeswoman Chon Tomlin says, “The areas we picked
to put stores were areas that definitely had lack of resources, that had lack of groceries within a mile, a mile-and-a-half, two miles from their home.”
Last week, at two just-opened Save-A-Lot locations in Woodlawn (344 E 63rd St) and Auburn Gresham (148 W 79th St), residents expressed appreciation for the new stores—and the 25 jobs each one creates—but across the board balked at the notion that there’s a distressing scarcity of produce options in their neighborhoods.
This anecdotal testimony supports researcher Mari Gallagher’s sense that “the food desert is slowly but surely shrinking,” she told me last week over the phone. Gallagher’s group will issue an updated Food Desert Report in mid-May. She credits the reduction to agglomeration, the theory that similar and complementary retailers cluster together, creating areas like Jeweler’s Row. “Now that grocers like Save-A-Lot and Aldi are moving into food deserts, other grocers are being attracted. That’s why you see a neighborhood that was pretty down-and-out suddenly turn around.”