Food Justice! No Peas?

LaDonna Redmond’s on a quest to put fresh, healthy foods in Chicago’s South Side.

Photo by Joits via Flickr

LaDonna Redmond's new grocery store, Graffiti and Grub, overlooks Interstate 90 just inside the Chicago city limits. A short distance away, the El tracks cut overhead—and as she greets me and unlocks the door, a train clatters by. The store is right on the boundary between Englewood and Washington Park, two largely African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South Side.

While I waited for Redmond, the president and CEO of the Institute for Community Resource Development, I walked to one of the corner stores a few blocks over. Inside, all the food was behind Plexiglas, and the main offerings were packages of chips, sodas and "juice" in lurid tones of blue and yellow. The fresh food was limited to a tray of ground beef covered in plastic wrap sitting next to a handful of packaged cold cuts in an otherwise empty display case. There were no vegetables in sight. Both neighborhoods are what researcher Mari Gallagher calls food deserts—defined by lack of readily available, nutritious food. Gallagher has just completed her second survey of food availability in Chicago and remains concerned that many neighborhoods lack affordable, available fresh food. “These residents are more likely to die and suffer prematurely from diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer,” Gallagher wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “The relationship is what we researchers call "statistically significant."

Once inside, Redmond flips on the lights on an unfinished retail space—empty, save for a giant walk in refrigerator. She is working with a local design college on the plans to build out the interior. The second floor has been finished with wood floors, couches and low tables.

The store is the latest project in Redmond's decade-long quest for food justice. Food justice activists stress that it is not enough to merely recognize food shortages—fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate food should be available to all communities. Moreover, food shortages and food quality are connected to community health. Her son, now 11, was born with severe food allergies. As she explored what foods she could and could not feed him, she was struck by the lack of information about additives, pesticides and access to food that did not contain them. She set out to address a personal problem and became an activist.

"The entire food system is broken, from production to consumption,” she said. “We’ve tried different pieces; we tried focusing on people’s dietary habits and healthy lifestyles. You know, that’s worked, I should say, saved people’s lives. Then we focused on organics and sustainable agriculture in terms of production, I’m sure that’s worked to some degree, but people are still hungry; people still go without healthy food." It’s evident in the amount of money spent on fresh food today. In this “fast-food nation,” where cheap food at fast-food joints have often replaced home-cooked meals, Americans are spending 10 percent of their income on food, compared with 25 percent in the 1950s.