Spurred by a 2006 study of so-called “food deserts” – areas in Chicago where the scarcity of grocers negatively impacts public health – several Walgreens in the city have begun offering expanded food and grocery items.
The first, launched at Walgreens, 2340 W. Madison, opened in late May. Past the Hallmark greeting cards, just beyond the $10.99 sunglasses and across from the laundry detergent now sit four double-sided grocery aisles. Among the items for sale: frozen vegetables and dinner entrees, butter, bread and cereal.
Though most people are happy for the added convenience, opinions were mixed on how much the new options will change shopping behavior.
Victor Warren lives near Hoyne and Warren and usually shops at the Food4Less near Cicero and Cermak, nearly five miles to the southwest. He plans to continue shopping at Walgreens for “meds and knick-knacks.”
“They still don’t have a wide range of food,” Warren said.
Other area residents were happy to have the option. Hilario Rodriguez, who lives near Jackson and Campbell and shops at the Strack & Van Til in Logan Square nearly four miles away, said he will probably be back to Walgreens to buy food.
“It’s a better selection than it used to be. They re-modeled it. It makes you want to shop there more,” he said.
The 2006 study, Good Food: Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, found strong correlations between nutrition-related illnesses and where in Chicago people live. The report measured the distance of every city block to the nearest grocery store and fast food restaurant. It then created a score based on the balance of food choices for residents.
In the areas with the worst scores, the study found residents potentially face more than 40 years of life lost to diabetes alone. The research was sponsored by LaSalle Bank and conducted by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, a Chicago-based firm.
The study stated that Chicago’s food deserts had a disproportionate impact on black neighborhoods.
“In a typical African-American block,” it reads, “the nearest grocery store is roughly twice the distance as the nearest fast food restaurant.”
Updated statistics released last year show that roughly 13,000 people spread over 107 blocks – more than 9,000 of whom are black residents – are affected by the food desert around Madison and Western.
Walgreens spokesman Vivika Vergara said the company plans to add 10 more expanded food sections to locations largely on the far South Side, “where there are lots of people and nothing around but fast food options.”
Mari Gallagher, president of the research group that issued the report, is happy about Walgreens’ decision.
“We have to remember that pharmacies aren’t grocery stores, but they do offer a tremendous amount of convenience, and if they’re going to increase the availability of food among those residents – that is great,” she said. “We see this as a very positive step in the right direction.”