When Lynn Morton needs to go to the grocery store, she has to think about the time of day. Will the bus be too crowded for groceries, or should she try to hitch a ride with her parents to Melrose Park?
“To go to the grocery store, there’s a lot of planning involved,” the Austin resident said.
That’s because she lives on a stretch of Chicago Avenue with no full-service grocery stores.
Austin – the most populated of Chicago’s 77 community areas – has 14 grocery stores, according to a 2013 count on the city of Chicago data portal.
But a closer look shows two stores on the list – Moo & Oink Inc. and Ohio Food Mart – are closed, and nine others on the list are considered corner stores or small grocery stores.
Leamington Foods at 5467 W. Madison St. wasn’t on the city’s list, but Yelp reviewers complained of a lack of fresh food choices and expired product.
John, a manager from the store who didn’t want to give his full name, said Yelp reviews aren’t necessarily credible. The store offers all the fruits and vegetables that any grocery store would offer and specializes in fresh meat, he said.
Even with these stores, parts of Austin are still considered a food desert, according to reports by researcher Mari Gallagher, who coined the term.
To be considered a food desert, at least 33 percent of the area’s population has to live further than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Gallagher connects the dots between health issues and food deserts in her reports; Austin has high levels of cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and diabetes.
But health isn’t the only concern.
Mark Allen, chairman of National Black Wall Street Chicago, said transforming vacant lots into gardens, farmers markets and grocery stores would provide much-needed employment and keep people off the street.
“The land is there, the workforce is there, and the market is there,” said Allen.
“Then, when you finally get a store in the neighborhood like a Whole Foods, you already have a clientele,” he said.
He has criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel for having $40 million in a job creation fund that Allen said is going unused, especially in neighborhoods like Austin.
Austin’s aldermen should be asking the mayor what he’s doing with the money, said Allen.
But 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham said that money is being used for programs in Austin.
“Sure, there are a lot more opportunities to put kids to work, but we need a plan. You just can’t go to the mayor demanding funds without a plan in place,” said Graham.
She wants the community to be involved in crafting those plans, which is why she’s hosting a series of community meetings to address issues that are important to residents, she said.
And full-service grocery stores were on that list of issues at the first meeting held earlier this month, hosted the same week upscale grocery store Whole Foods announced plans to come to the Englewood neighborhood.
Still, Graham said she’s proud of the three existing farmers markets in the 29th Ward and the Root Riot community garden on Waller Avenue.
Austin has five farmers markets: PCC Produce Market, Austin Town Hall Farmers Market, Columbus Park Farmers Market, La Follette Park Farmers Market and the Austin Farmers Market, and the full-service grocery store Praxis Marketplace has plans to come to the neighborhood as early as next year.
But longtime resident Morton said she wants to be able to shop at Jewel and remembers when the grocery store was located in Austin in the early 1970s.
Morton and Graham said more grocery stores won’t solve the problem if people aren’t educated about healthy eating.
“People are asking for more vegetables, but when some of the stores carry them, they go bad,” said Graham.
“The truth of the matter is that a combination of things needs to happen,” she said.
Morton agrees it will take community effort.
She said she wants to host more events like healthy cooking demonstrations.
“I think part of it is, we know on a basic level we should be eating fruits and vegetables, but for not having it for so long, even if we can afford it, now what do I do with it?” asked Morton.