Study: Connection Between Good Health and Chicago Supermarkets

Discussion
Jul 18, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson

A new study, Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, finds a direct correlation between access to grocery stores in local neighborhoods and the
health of the population in those areas.

For many consumers without neighborhood supermarkets, food choices often come down to fast food and other items that may be okay to eat as a treat but were never intended to
serve as everyday staples.

The study, commissioned by LaSalle Bank, measured the distance to the nearest grocery store and fast-food restaurant by city block in Chicago. This data enabled researchers to
establish a “food balance” score for each neighborhood.

African-Americans were the most likely to be stranded on so-called “food deserts.” Within Chicago, African-Americans have to travel the farthest to reach food stores while, in
many cases, having to travel the least to find a fast-food establishment.

Researcher Mari Gallagher told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I think the good news of this study is that it brings a new call to action for what can be done in these communities.
We know that across the country, the black population generally has higher diet-related deaths and health disparities. Can you change somebody’s genetics? Can you change somebody’s
eating preferences? Can you change somebody’s income? Certainly there are some things along those lines that can be done . . . but the good news is you can probably even more
easily locate a grocery store somewhere.” 

Discussion Questions: Do major grocery store operators have a civic duty to open stores in so-called food deserts? How does this square in Chicago where
an ordinance is being advanced that would keep big box stores out unless they agreed to wage and benefit mandates?

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17 Comments on "Study: Connection Between Good Health and Chicago Supermarkets"


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Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Civic duty? Has the US suddenly ceased to be a market driven capitalist society? Only if enough of the gods holding shares in companies decide that there is more money to be made from poor folks will they get their fresh food. Unless those dratted governments – local, state or federal – decide to intervene with their nannyist tactics and either impose penalties or proffer rewards for change. Civic duty and corporate responsibility are so much easier to demonstrate with donations and promotions and sponsorship without having to invest as much as it would cost to open, stock and run a permanent retail outlet.

On the other hand, I think Al has made an excellent point with his comment about corner stores – perhaps someone should point out to Tesco that they could have a monopoly (and possibly loadsa tax incentives) if they opened their convenience stores on every street corner, a la Starbucks. Wouldn’t that make the world an interesting place?

David Livingston
Guest
14 years 7 months ago
There is a good reason why major grocery stores stay out of the difficult inner city areas — they don’t want to be there and the residents generally do not support the store. These stores typically are the lower volume stores in their chains and do not contribute to the bottom line. No company has a civic duty to open stores in difficult areas, putting the lives of employees at risk. Obviously the personal preferences for food are more supportive of fast food and not supermarkets. Sure it might not be a healthy choice but that is the personal choice these residents are making. This situation is not as bad as the article suggests. In Chicago, there is usually an Aldi about every three to five miles or so and they offer healthy choices at very low prices. Even McDonald’s sells salads and juice. The big box ordinance really has nothing to do with supermarkets but more to do with “feel good” politics. If a 75,001 square foot conventional supermarket wanted to open in Chicago,… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Pathmark built a supermarket in a very poor area of Newark, with the help of a community organization. (See “New Community Pathmark Supermarket
USA
“)

Local governments can use financing and tax incentives, and zoning, as incentives for new supermarkets in poor areas. Requiring a living wage and decent medical benefits will not screen out the unionized supermarkets or certain non-union operators, such as Costco.

Paul Waldron
Guest
Paul Waldron
14 years 7 months ago

This study may be an example of a researcher with a preconceived outcome. It studies one aspect and tries to make it entirely responsible for the observation.

No doubt, people in these areas have reported additional health problems, but it may be the result of the foods they eat or are other considerations at play, i.e. the area is more likely to cause health problems because of environmental conditions like pollution and contaminants?

Second, does it make sense to spend more per meal on fast food rather than travel to a grocery store?

Third, do you know what percentage of people’s meals in this area are actually fast food vs. homemade?

Nowhere in this study did they say they actually talked to any of the people in the area; they just measured available options within a given distance and made a conclusion.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
14 years 7 months ago
This is a complex issue for which there are no simple answers. Residents of under-stored areas with access to fast food outlets but no grocery stores don’t need a supermarket to see an improvement in their lives. They just need a corner grocery store – not that a supermarket wouldn’t be better but if there were more corner grocers that would be a good start and if residents could/would start walking to them that would improve health even more. If these areas really are underserved, then there are plenty of opportunities for local entrepreneurs to take care of the situation. Will they step up to the plate and if not, why not? Tax incentives and other subsidies are certainly in order for these businesses. While there is no legal obligation for anyone to do anything about this situation, there would seem to be a nice opportunity for a big-name retailer to step up, help the community, and reap the P.R. benefits. How about a few Neighborhood Markets from Wal-Mart as a goodwill gesture? Then maybe… Read more »
Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
14 years 7 months ago

While it is good and noble to believe that a supermarket or any retailer for that matter has a “civic responsibility” it is impractical. Supermarkets are in business to make money. If the “food deserts” are not profitable for whatever reason, how can one expect a retailer to open or maintain a store in that area? In the end, it all comes down to dollars and cents.

Karin Miller
Guest
Karin Miller
14 years 7 months ago

The underserved areas mentioned in the article hold populations that are disadvantaged by many measures, including transportation.

Access to at least one good, basic grocery store with competitive prices does almost seem like something everyone should have.

While it is clear that corporations that run supermarkets are not obligated to potentially lower their profits to serve these communities, I agree that leaders in these areas should do what is necessary to make it attractive for grocery stores to serve these citizens.

Campaigns by community leaders to keep Wal-Mart out of locations such as Inglewood, CA, where the population clearly would have benefited, are shameful.

And credit must be given to Magic Johnson who used his new lease on life to start a corporation (www.johnsondevelopmentcorp.com), that is working to serve these communities and make a profit.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Sadly, in the end, the only absolute obligation a business has is to make a profit. Individual business owners or leaders may feel a civic responsibility or moral imperative to do more for the communities they operate in but — as David pointed out — if the numbers aren’t there the stores won’t be either. Will the absence of supermarkets in poor urban neighborhoods have a negative impact on the health of the residents of those neighborhoods? Of course. Is that “fair”? Of course not. Is it criminal that some citizens in the richest nation in the world have little or no functional access to the bounty of the American harvest? Without question. Will it change? Not given the current social and political climate. Oh…and about Chicago…why does anyone expect those regulators and law makers to be rational?

Zel Bianco
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

There is a choice here. The subway (L) in Chicago is pretty good. People who live in these areas can take the train to a supermarket once a week and shop for the essential and healthier foods for their families. This may seem ridiculous, but consider that lower income people that live in and around expensive areas like the Hamptons, or resort areas in Colorado, etc., travel long distances to shop at a “real” supermarket where items are priced reasonably as opposed to over-priced in the resort town. Isn’t this the same type of situation?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

The local communities are one of the stakeholder groups that need to be balanced in serving all the stakeholder groups. Definitely, inner cities as well as refurbished urban areas have specific challenges. Big box stores will not survive. However, this does sound like an opportunity for some of the convenience or neighborhood stores.

George Anderson
Guest
George Anderson
14 years 7 months ago

Convenience wins out. Consumers who live in food deserts are more likely to buy something from a local fast food restaurant than take public transportation to get to a full line grocery store. Another thing worth keeping in mind here is that consumers that do make the trip to stores in other neighborhoods need to get those groceries home. Since there is only so much one person can haul at a time, living far from a supermarket means multiple trips a week for larger households to keep refrigerators and pantries fairly well stocked. For those simply trying to get by (working multiple low-paying jobs for example), that may be an added hardship in and of itself.

As for responsibility, there is certainly a need for more stores in underserved areas and less stores in areas where consumers need only throw a rock to find someplace to shop. Government/community efforts in cooperation with well-intentioned retailers is the only answer. A way has to be found to make it worthwhile for stores to open in these neighborhoods.

s sarkauskas
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I would have liked to have seen data about crime rates in the communities studied. That may explain the lack of corner grocers as well as more major supermarkets. These may be areas that were once served by grocery stores and many other businesses, but lost them either due to white flight (with perceived fears of crime) or actual crime.

As for walking to the store: In higher-crime areas, activities that many might take for granted, such as walking to the store, can become fraught with danger. The book “Heat Wave,” where a sociologist studied why 700-plus people died during a heat wave 10 years ago in the city, pointed out the difference in death rates in poor neighborhoods that were alike demographically except for crime rates. If you are old or infirm, you’re not going outside for exercise or socialization if you think you are likely to be robbed of your grocery or Social Security money.

Michael Tesler
Guest
Michael Tesler
14 years 7 months ago

This is everybody else’s problem that no one wants to tackle head on. It requires a joint effort between cities, civic groups, landlords and retailers. Magic Johnson’s group is experiencing success with such an effort in other non-food related retail projects in inner cities. It can work with food markets as well…to use the vernacular (in the way Mr. Bush did yesterday) it requires that we give a —- about each other. What’s wrong or un American or anti capitalist about that?

Russell Jenkins
Guest
Russell Jenkins
14 years 7 months ago

Community leaders, politicians, and even local business are quick to support throwing money at the problem without taking a holistic review of all the factors that discourage operating a store at certain locations – crime statistics, market realities, and perceptions – and then responding accordingly. Given the commitment and investment required, long term solutions should be given priority over quick fixes that win popular support, but do not sufficiently address the real concerns faced.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Target used to have a policy — probably still does — of donating a small percentage (5-10%) of its profits to “worthy” causes… I wonder if that money would be better “donated” keeping marginal stores open; whether or not that would be as well received, or how many stores would make the cut, I don’t know.

Barry Wise
Guest
Barry Wise
14 years 7 months ago

On the subject of whether supermarket retailers have a civic duty to open stores in these “food deserts,” I think we should keep in mind that in our capitalistic society retailers will open stores wherever they can be successful.

From my retailing experiences several years ago in some of the “food deserts” in Chicago, I can say that the answer isn’t just opening new supermarkets. Why is it that there are so many fast food outlets in these areas? It’s because that’s where the residents of these neighborhoods choose buy their meals. Fast food operators more often compete with each other, than they do with supermarkets.

I believe a significant part of the answer is in educating the people that live there as to healthy eating, food preparation and the value of preparing meals at home. Once there is an increased demand for supermarkets, I believe they will be built, providing Chicago’s city leaders don’t penalize big box retailers who are investing in building new stores in Chicago.

Dee Boling
Guest
Dee Boling
14 years 6 months ago

It’s obvious that education about health and nutrition are needed, which is pointed out in the full report. But the researchers also point out that education alone is a bit disingenuous if residents don’t then have some place to purchase healthy foods. To say that it’s all a matter of choice of eating is far too simplistic. To address the issue will take many levels and approaches – incentives to large or smaller grocers to open in the area, improved education about health, improved education period, adequate lighting and access to stores, and community involvement to improve the landscape overall. We’ve become so complacent about lower socio-economic areas in our inner cities – as though it’s okay so long as the crime, poor health, and poor environments stay there. But the issue is about the health of our communities as a whole. We need to find market solutions that improve the landscape for ALL of us.

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