Fighting the Food Justice Fight, One Veggie at a Time

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Getty Images

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.

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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