Controversy in the local food universe

October 30, 2011

Michelle Obama fights food deserts…why is that controversial?

Here are some depressing statistics about Chicago’s food desert, as presented in a report released by Mari Gallahger Research & Consulting Group on October 24:

  • The Food Desert population could fill U.S. Cellular Field to capacity ten times over with its nearly 384,000 residents. 70 percent are African American.
  • Of that number, more than 124,000 are children, the population of Naperville, Illinois.
  • Chicago’s Food Desert children could fill to capacity 2,484 school buses. If all of these busses lined up bumper-to-bumper, they would stretch from President Obama’s Chicago house in Hyde Park, to City Hall on LaSalle Street, and then to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house.
  • Nearly 70,000 Food Desert households are headed by single women with children.
  • 40,000 Food Desert households do not own cars.

That being said, the study also revealed that the food desert has declined nearly 40 percent over the past five years. The report was released on Food Day, and a day before Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel held what he called a “Food Summit” with First Lady Michelle Obama, a group of U.S. mayors, CEOs of various food retailers (including Walmart and Deerfield-based Walgreens) and even some local food organizations, including Growing Power.

That same day, the City of Chicago website announced:

Today Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined First Lady Michelle Obama and executives from major grocery chains across the country to announce plans to open 36 new grocery stores in communities across Chicago: 17 traditional grocery stores and 19 expanded Walgreens Co. stores that include fresh food. The majority of the stores will be located in communities with food deserts, as part of the Administration’s ongoing commitment to expand access to fresh and healthy foods across in the city. The Mayor also announced that one of Chicago’s major urban farm networks, Growing Power, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Walgreens Co. and Aldi to increase access not only to locally grown produce, but to job opportunities and economic development across its farm locations in Chicago.

Wow. Cool beans. Let’s all sing Kumbaya and have some Quinoa and…um, cool beans.

So why did some of the subsequent coverage look like this?

Yikes. Okay, in the interest of being “fair and blanaced,” here’s one from the “other” side:

So what’s the problem? Personally, I think it’s pretty much the same old same old: too much money concentrated in the hands of too few, politicians working with the rich and powerful instead of listening to the communities, the fear that local institutions can be co-opted by what are large contributions for them but a pittance for the contributer, etc., etc. (See Occupy Wall Street.) It doesn’t help when Mayor Rahm Emanuel, according to an article by Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke in the Chicago Reader, seems to be a guy who’s more likely to pal around with multi-millionaires than community activists. Okay, that’s nothing new in Chicago politics, but it’s not encouraging.

So I urge you to take a look at this statement prepared by a group of those activists, Chicago’s Advocates for Urban Agriculture. I had a little to do with this document (I’m a signatory), but not very much, really. It outlines in a very clear way what many people who have been working in local, sustainable and urban agriculture have been preaching for years. Among the recommendations suggested by AUA:

This is a moment for redefinition of the city’s economic vision and policy, a window of opportunity for the establishment of neighborhood-based models and institutions. We urge that the City of Chicago:
• Direct the majority of federal, state, and local funds and investment mobilized for healthy food access to medium-scale and neighborhood-based owners and operators of food enterprises.
• Incentivize and expedite infrastructure for sites and systems, business ownership and ongoing support for neighborhood enterprises; and
• Hire a Food System and Enterprise Coordinator at the level of the Mayor’s office to oversee an inter-departmental accountability team and navigate among city, county, and extended region staff and functions: to solve problems, interpret between and among departments, Statement in Support of Local Food Economy in Chicago and seek coherent, comprehensive application of services and resources within all dimensions that impact the local food system.
• Complete a multi-stakeholder analysis of demand and supply chains to propose ways to provide as much food locally as needed and possible, produced at scale from hyper-local to regional and beyond.
• Work with a Chicago Food Council that is more fully representative and comprises practitioners, governmental officials, and neighborhood residents, and that operates within a responsive, transparent, and accountable communication and democratic decision-making structure.

If you feel strongly about the direction in which the food movement is headed and you agree with the proposals put forth by AUA, you are welcome to sign the document on behalf of yourself or your organization. Contact Martha Boyd:

The Statement has been sent to the Mayor and First Lady, groups and lists, and interested members of the media. I ask you to send the statement to your friends and allies, aldermen and policymakers, and to talk with them about it and this growing coalition.

Eden Place Nature Center:
Making a difference on Chicago’s south side

Last week I had the priviledge of being invited to the Openlands 2011 Annual Luncheon, where more than 700 of this area’s foremost environmentalists renew their commitment to what is sometimes known as the Chicago Wilderness. And schmooze. And have some lunch. And perhaps one tiny little glass of wine. Good times.

This year’s event honored TreeKeepers, which has grown into an internationally renowned model for urban forestry. TreeKeepers classes have been attended more than 1,300 people including me (I’m TreeKeeper #417, thank you very much), representing a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and neighborhoods. Collectively, these volunteers have combated issues such as the emerald ash borer (EAB) , developed a community arboretum in North Lawndale, and undertaken a comprehensive tree inventory in Chicago parks. In 2010 TreeKeeper volunteers dedicated more than 15,000 volunteer hours to protecting our urban forests.

Also honored at the luncheon was Michael Howard, who received the Conservation Leadership Award for his work at Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago’s Fuller Park neighborhood. Howard has been described an an environmental hero for his work in changing a lead-choked brownfield into a place where the community can see and appreciate wetlands, monarch butterfly habitats, vegetable gardens–and even a solar bus theater.

Howard is one of those people who literally change the world around them, seemingly by force of will. I have interviewed him before, but not in too long a time. It’s a pleasure to welcome Michael and his wife and partner Amelia to the show.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals
Faith in Place winter farmers markets are here

November can be the cruelest month, if only because so many farmers markets go away for the season. But not all of them. It’s that time of year for the Winter Farmers Markets, sponsored by Faith in Place.

Free and open to the public, these markets offer consumers an opportunity to purchase cheese, meat and poultry, soap, syrup, honey, wool, raw fibers, vinegars, dried fruits, milled flours, sauces and salsas, preserves, cider, and fresh produce as available.

For the farmers, there is no fee to participate, but they donate 10% of what they take in at the market (after a threshold amount) to the Illinois Farmer Crisis Fund. Modeled after Wisconsin’s Harvest of Hope Fund, the Farmer Crisis Fund will give monetary gifts of up to $1,000 to farmers in crisis due to illness or unexpected expenses. Through these markets, consumers continue to purchase farm-fresh items and cultivate relationships with local farmers beyond the summer farmers’ market season.

I’m delighted to have Robin Schirmer from Tomato Mountain Farm in Wisconsin and Leila Shooshani with Faith in Place’s Congregational Outreach & Support in the studio to talk about the upcoming markets. Here’s the schedule for November and December:

  • Sunday, Nov 6 | 12-3 pm
    Faith Lutheran Church, Brookfield
  • Sunday, Nov 13 | 12-3 pm
    UU Church of Elgin, Elgin
  • Sunday, Dec 4 | 10 am-2 pm
    North Shore Unitarian Church, Deerfield
  • Sunday, Dec 11 | 11:30 am-3pm
    First Evangelical Free Church, Chicago
  • Saturday, Dec 17 | 10 am-2 pm
    Church of St. Benedict, Bolingbrook

I also have a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT about The Mike Nowak Show and Faith in Place…maybe I’ll announce it on Sunday morning, and maybe I won’t. So there.