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Food Desert: What’s in a Name?

Students of NUvention: Impact work to identify social/environmental challenges faced in communities around the world and design sustainable business models that can address these issues. Read about their experiences in this special blog series.

NUvention: Impact Chicago team: Cody Fischer, Christy He, Brittany Murphy, Lily Zhou, Matt White, Katherine Hand

NUvention Impact Team Chicago took our social entrepreneurial ambitions to communities geographically close by, but still a world apart from our comfortable homes in Evanston.

Throughout our field research, we spoke with several community based organizations (schools, community development councils, YMCAs and more), food justice advocates and academics. And, of course, we spoke with as many food desert residents about their grocery shopping habits, needs, frustrations and wishes as we could. Mothers, fathers, grand- and great grand-parents, and single people – everyone had something to say about why they shop where they do, and what could be better about their local food options.

What seemed clear to us, as we travelled throughout neighborhoods in west and south Chicago, was that these were neighborhoods where options were limited, geographically far apart and lacking in quality. We saw corner stores advertising “full line of grocery,” only to find the shelves lined with processed, packaged foods and the refrigerators stocked with expired products and sugary drinks. At discount food retailers in the area, we heard of exceedingly long lines and regular stock outs, particularly during the first and fifteenth of the month when many residents do the majority of their shopping.

However, over and over again, as we presented our project to interview subjects, the response received was “this isn’t really a food desert.”

Currently, more than 300,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts, as defined by a variety of experts. The USDA defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.” In this definition, a lack of “ready access” means at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the census tract's population live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

“No, I don’t really think this is a food desert. I live on 79thth street, and the Save-a-Lot is on 73rd [~1.5 miles]…” said one interviewee. Like so many that we met, she travelled on foot or by bus once or twice a month to shop for her pantry staples. “I’ll buy as much as I can carry,” she says, and often has to make several trips to several stores in the area to get the products that she wants for the price she needs.

So why did virtually none of our interviewees seem to see this as a problem?

For many residents of Chicago’s designated “food deserts,” things may be bad by comparison to the city as a whole, but they are getting better compared to how they used to be.

“We have a Wal-Mart about a mile away,” said one south Chicago resident. “Before that came in, sure, there was nothing, but now, we’ve got the corner store, the Wal-mart…”

And then, of course, there is the issue of demand.

Another major focus of our research was uncovering the inherent interest from our target communities in purchasing and preparing “healthier options.” Unsurprisingly, this behavior change piece proves to be the most difficult part. “Our residents think that it takes too long or is too expensive to make healthy meals. Or they are just not used to it,” explained a case manager as a west side supportive housing development.

And so, the issue that our team is wrestling with is not just increasing access (supply), but perhaps also around sparking behavior change in both shopping and eating habits (demand). Will food desert consumers step up and support not only a grocery delivery service but also the healthier food options that such access affords them? And how can we best help to spark this change?

Check out the experience of NUvention: Impact students in India and in Panama.

Visit the Kellogg full-time MBA blog for stories from Indonesia and more. Check back for more blog posts from NUvention: Impact students.

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