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.
Graffiti and Grub will be open a few days a week: "Thursday, Friday, Saturday—days we know people are looking for fresh fruits and vegetables, getting ready to cook for the weekend," she says. Redmond has received support for the store from the MacArthur and Kellogg Foundations. She opened the space with a dinner party featuring chicken from Pembroke Farmers, an African-American cooperative about 70 miles south of Chicago, and dishes prepared by prominent Chicago chefs Quentin Love, owner of the Quench restaurants, and Tsadakeeyah Ben Israel, head chef of Chicago's famed Soul Vegetarian.
Redmond plans to keep dinner parties at the core of Graffiti and Grub's mission to get people involved. "We have to be a little bit more creative about what we do with food. We have to be willing to, in this space, do a bunch of things to help people get to the food."
This summer, Redmond has also been working with the Washington Park Home Owners Association to help them develop empty lots into community farms. They have partnered with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, to employ youth between 15 and 22 at $8 an hour.
The first lot is up and running 10 blocks away at the corner of 56th and Indiana. Pasha Hunt-Golliday, of the Washington Park Home Owners Association, was outside supervising the construction of picnic tables when I arrived. "The issues that face our community aren't that different from those that face most inner-city communities—crime, gentrification, and we don't have healthy food options.”
Hunt-Golliday has been working to get community gardens in place for over two years. For her, they address the very real food needs of her neighbors, while also providing a means of investing in the physical space of the community.
For Redmond, that community investment is crucial to her effort. Despite the need, she isn't interested in turning Graffiti and Grub into a chain of stores. "I am not a person that's into replication. I think you can replicate a concept, but it really is up to the community to make it their own.”
Redmond says President Obama has brought a palpable change to the food justice community. And Michelle Obama's White House garden shows the importance of making the fight for food justice about more than just what's on the plate. "Using the White House as a place to bring children to teach them about healthy eating sort of just circumvents the whole conversation around public policy and gets to the heart of the matter—you want kids to have great food. You want your kids to have great food. We can back into everything else."
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Phoebe Connelly is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the Web editor of the American Prospect.