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Save-A-Lot stores and food deserts

Residents near new South Side Save-A-Lot stores say they’ve had no trouble finding groceries.

By Jake Malooley |
 (Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki)
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki
 (Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki)
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki�Food desert sounds to me like it�s hard to find food. [Laughs] I didn�t think it was hard for me to find food. There�s a Jewel-Osco that�s just as far from my house.��Daniel Harris, 25, Woodlawn
 (Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki)
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki�I�m right across the street in the apartment complex, so this [Save-A-Lot] location is very convenient for me. But this is not a food desert: We have Jewel down the road, another Save-A-Lot on 79th and Halsted, Aldi around the corner on State. People shouldn�t feel sorry for us. This is a black middle-class neighborhood. It�s not like I�m suffering.��Taylor McDowell, 50, Auburn Gresham
�I can just get off the train and walk over here. But there�s a produce and meat market on the corner of 79th and Vincennes, Vincennes Food, that�s just three blocks further.��Cassandra Davidson, 42, Auburn Gresham
�I appreciate [Save-A-Lot�s] produce. What I don�t appreciate is the idea that there is a dearth of food suppliers. I�ve lived in this neighborhood for 47 years, and it would be a misstatement to say that this is a food desert. I think it�s someone in Save-A-Lot�s PR office who hasn�t actually even seen this neighborhood, just categorically says that it�s a food desert so it gives the impression that the company is saving the day.��Earl Demus, no age given, Auburn Gresham

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.”