Fighting the Food Justice Fight, One Veggie at a Time

America's inner cities are virtual food deserts, with nary a grocery store to be found. How one Chicago coalition is trying to change all that.

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Nashashibi sees an opening in this paradigm.

In addressing food deserts, Nashashibi envisions harkening back to the legacy of the black power movement and black Muslim ideals of building up neighborhoods with small businesses. This could be an interethnic cooperative model. If the big grocers don't come, why not build up these corner stores as viable alternatives to address food deserts? For example, IMAN wants to ensure that small neighborhood stores receive state money earmarked for fresh food--not just the chains. An Illinois state representative is helping redefine how those funds can be dispersed. On a weekday afternoon, Nashashibi and I visit a couple of corner stores in Englewood, a poor neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side.  All of the stores are packed to the hilt with alcohol and junk food. There's no fresh produce, no fresh meat section. Instead, there's a bounty of canned and processed food. When asked about selling alcohol--against Islam's teachings--some Muslim storeowners look sheepish.  The Muslim Run campaign says there are too many corner stores that sell liquor --and too many that sell liquor as primary merchandise.

Some argue that the Arab merchants are simply supplying a demand--and that demand is not for fruit and vegetables. Lack of mobility, and in some cases lack of knowledge about other food options, are the main reasons why customers continue to patronize corner stores. There is a movement to promote  urban gardening on vacant land on the South Side, but education around food justice is ongoing.

Regrettably, I was 18 years old before I knew that "A-rab" wasn't a word. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, albeit in a black middle-class community that grappled a little less with disinvestment. Nonetheless, I was taught not to buy from Arab-owned businesses in my neighborhood--and not just because they weren't black-owned. . The rudeness from store owners and nearly bare shelves were reasons enough to stay away. Sometimes this informal boycott meant that corner stores got forced out of business. (And in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were more formal boycotts from two Roman Catholic priests, Rev. George Clements and Rev. Michael Pfleger, who lobbied to get corner stores to stop selling drug paraphernalia.) But when a pair of Arab businessmen bought a black-owned grocery store, they came hat-in-hand to the community by promising to keep black employees on the payroll and black-owned products on the shelves.

Not every community has that type of agency. The sensitive dialogue has started with IMAN's Muslim Run campaign. Now organizers are looking at building upon that to impact the quality of life. One fresh vegetable at a time.

Natalie Y. Moore is a public affairs reporter at Chicago Public Radio. Follow her on Twitter.

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