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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In poor black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, the corner store is like an old-fashioned, all-purpose general store. But not nearly as pleasant and accommodating. Patrons support them out of convenience because major grocers ignore these communities. Corner stores tend to mostly peddle junk and unhealthy food–potato chip varieties, funny-colored soft drinks, anything with high fructose corn syrup–exacerbating community ills of diabetes and hypertension.

The stores are typically owned by Muslim Arab merchants, which add a layer of racial tension in already disinvested neighborhoods. Some black customers complain that Arab owners treat them rudely, gorge prices and create an aesthetically unappealing milieu.

One community group has initiated a campaign to take on the all-too-prevalent corner stores. Instead of merely zooming in on the racial angle, organizers are framing this as an issue around food deserts, communities void of grocery stores offering the basics: fresh food.

The Inner City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, started Muslim Run, a new movement to tackle poverty and the lack of access to healthy food in black communities. It’s a coalition of blacks and Arabs with the commonality of a shared faith.

“Food deserts and liquor stores as an issue are interconnected,” says Rami Nashashibi, the founding and current executive director of IMAN. “We hope in part to make sure we begin to impact the quality of life around food justice issues, find legislative incentives for healthy food products in stores.”

As its name suggests, IMAN works in the urban core with the mission of connecting disconnected communities. Its headquarters are in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, a working-class enclave of bungalows with a mixed population of blacks, Arabs and Latinos.

Formed in 1997, IMAN’s headquarters are on West 63rd Street. There are remnants of blight and poverty: Boarded-up houses, sparse retail and crime, elements serving as the driving force behind IMAN’s inception. IMAN offers direct services, uses the arts for social change and organizes around youth violence.

“There was not a nonprofit organization that reflected the aspirations and hopes of the larger American Muslim community, particularly around social justice and addressing the most marginalized,” Nashashibi says. Raised in Europe and the Middle East, Nashashibi lives on the South Side. He is of Palestinian descent and enjoys credibility in both the black and Arab communities, talking easily, switching between speaking in Arabic with store owners to a more prosaic English with black neighbors.

For IMAN, tackling food deserts makes sense. . For a black-Arab coalition like IMAN, taking on the food-deserts issue is a logical move. It’s one thing for black American activists to complain about corner stores, but the Muslim Run campaign has Arabic-speaking organizers and blacks conducting a survey of store owners and customers. As Muslims, they’re in a unique position to set a morale with the merchants and compel them to better their small businesses.

The irony is that these groups of blacks and Arabs are part of forgotten communities in Chicago. Many Arab store owners are caught up in the middleman minority syndrome: They didn’t have enough money–or clout–to set up stores in other neighborhoods. That leaves them in the racialized, segregated space of vulnerable black communities on the South Side.

Nashashibi sees an opening in this paradigm.