JOLIET – Situated near Des Plaines and McDonough streets on Joliet’s South side, Pamela McGee lives within a five-block radius of at least four food pantries.
That includes her go-to place – the Warren Sharpe Community Center. Other pantries are scattered in nearby neighborhoods.
“I’m a grandma. I’m a great-grandma. I’m a mom. So, sometimes, if it wasn’t for Warren Sharpe, I wouldn’t have what I need,” McGee said. “But say you go to another pantry and you don’t have a ride. How much can you carry in your hands?”
With no car, if the 64-year-old great-grandmother wants to shop at the grocery store, she has a 20- to 30-minute walk to reach Certified Warehouse Foods on East Jackson Street.
There are a handful of supermercados and El Ranchito near Collins and Cass streets, about the same distance from McGee’s home, but she said she prefers Certified Warehouse Foods.
McGee’s South Side neighborhood is a federally designated “food desert” – or a low-income urban neighborhood where most residents do not have convenient and easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
The notion that a food desert exists in Joliet, or other U.S. cities, may seem impossible to some. But for nearly 24 million families in the U.S. who live in areas designated as food deserts, it’s a harsh reality.
Food desert, defined
A better understanding of the definition may shed light on the matter.
While “food desert” could suggest a total lack of grocery stores in a particular neighborhood, the definition relies on the distance to nearby grocery stores and the percentage of the population living in poverty.
Throughout Will County – including rural areas south of Interstate 80 and concentrated pockets on Joliet’s South and East Sides – is “a significant number or share of residents” who live farther than a half-mile or mile from the nearest supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food desert locator map.
Residents in food deserts often have a low income, lack transportation or have difficulty accessing transportation at rates higher than other U.S. cities, according to the USDA.
But whether sections of Joliet’s South and East sides meet the definition of a food desert depends on who you ask. To the USDA and community leaders on the East Side, the definition holds.
To Ken Clymer, owner of two Certified Warehouse Foods on Jackson and Richards streets, the neighborhoods he serves would not be a “food desert.” Most everyone has a car these days, he said.
“I’m always shocked when somebody says this is a food desert. We’ve been here since 1981. We’ve always been here,” Clymer said. “It’s like we don’t even exist. I think people think we’re a food desert because we don’t have the chain stores like the rest of Joliet has.”
Another pocket of Joliet designated as a food desert is located on the city’s East Side, an area that includes the Forest Park neighborhood. People are more likely to find a food pantry before a full-service grocery store in this part of town, said Joliet City Councilwoman Bettye Gavin, who represents District 4.
“The pantries we see here identifies that there’s the gap, that there’s a problem,” Gavin said.
As executive director for the Forest Park Community Center, Gavin said the center’s food pantry – and several others scattered on the South and East Sides – should be stopgap measures, not a permanent solution.
One of Gavin’s main goals on the Joliet City Council is to spur economic development in underserved areas, with a focus on job creation, grocery stores, improved public transportation and sidewalks.
Jim Haller, the city’s community and economic development director, said he’s shocked whenever someone labels the South and East sections of town as food deserts.
“We have grocery stores. The [U.S.] Department of [Agriculture] must not have come to Joliet,” Haller said, pointing to a concentrated pocket of grocery stores along Collins and Cass streets.
Community leaders and some residents on the East and South Sides of Joliet say otherwise.
In neighborhoods closer to I-80 – farther from the collection of supermarkets along Collins, Cass and Jackson streets – you’re more likely to find auto and tire stores, fast food restaurants, and small food-and-gas marts, said Kay Bolden, executive director for the Warren Sharpe Community Center.
“We’re a long way from Collins Street,” she said.
Mary Bell, 66, of Joliet said while she has a car, she knows many neighbors, family and friends who don’t.
“There are a lot who don’t. So they either got to get a ride from someone, walk or call a taxi. And you know how long that can take. And [a taxi] is expensive,” Bell said during a recent shopping trip to Certified Warehouse Foods. “People who have a car, who have the time, the money, who haven’t lived it, won’t understand it.”
Pushing out small business?
Haller said there’s a fine line to walk when welcoming big-box chain stores to neighborhoods.
“If you bring a grocery store, that’s going to be competing with all these other grocery places, you probably would cannibalize the market and put many of these family-owned ones out of business,” Haller said.
There’s also difficulty attracting businesses to the city’s impoverished and crime-riddled South and East Sides, he said. He noted how the city had a proposal from Aldi for a store along Cass Street about a year ago, but the company pulled out “in the 11th hour” when the property acquisition fell through.
Potential grocery chains often consider household income, spending patterns and traffic counts, Haller said.
Before abandoning the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s, grocery chains once stood where these smaller, family owned grocery stores are now, Clymer said. When others fled, Certified Warehouse Foods stayed.
“We stuck it out and survived the economic downturn. All the stores you see here, these are families making a living here,” Clymer said. “And if the chains wanted to be here, they would be. I couldn’t keep them out and their pockets are deeper than mine.”
Nutrition, poor diet
Often, living in a food desert limits residents’ options, and can lead to a poor diet, higher obesity levels, diabetes and heart disease, according to the USDA.
Donna Larkin-Lake, with the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said living in a food desert is a “very real” problem for some.
The food bank and its network of more than 800 food pantries, soup kitchens and other programs are often the only options in underserved neighborhoods, she said.
Children are the most vulnerable when there’s a lack of access to fresh foods, Larkin-Lake said. The Northern Illinois Food Bank is introducing new nutrition programs through the 13-county region targeted at children.
Bolden, with the Warren Sharpe Community Center, said a grocery store on every street corner won’t necessarily solve the issue, but it’s certainly part of a larger solution.
Bolden’s latest project involves developing a community garden at the center to teach children who attend summer camp and after-school programs about healthy living and nutrition. Children are learning how to plant microgreens and other vegetables this summer.
“We certainly can’t grow enough to feed the whole neighborhood,” Bolden said. “This is part of a bigger solution. It’s not the whole solution.”