The Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center hosted a free African/Caribbean dance class Sept. 21, at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St. Austin Town Hall is one of the sites for the Chicago Farmers' Market, sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Sankofa last summer hosted similar events at farmers' market sites throughout Austin, including Columbus and LaFollette parks. (DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer)

When Lynn Morton needs to go to the grocery store, she has to think about the time of day.

Will the bus be too crowded for groceries, or should she try to hitch a ride with her parents to Melrose Park?

“To go to the grocery store, there’s a lot of planning involved,” the Austin resident said.

That’s because she lives on a stretch of Chicago Avenue with no full-service grocery stores. Austin, the city’s most populated community, has 14 grocery stores, according to 2013 data from the city.

But two stores listed — Moo & Oink Inc. and Ohio Food Mart — are closed, and nine others on the city’s list are considered “corner stores or small grocery stores.”

Austin has a Food 4 Less, 4821 W. North Ave., an Aldi on 5629 W. Fillmore St. and a Save-a-Lot at 5555 W. North Ave. Leamington Foods, which is located at 5467 W. Madison, wasn’t on the city’s list.

And according to customer reviews on the business-tracking website Yelp, Chicagoan’s complain about a lack of local fresh food choices and expired products.

John, a manager from the store who didn’t want to give his full name, said Yelp reviews aren’t necessarily credible. The Austin store, he added, specializes in fresh meat and offers all the fruits and vegetables found at any other grocer.

But even with these stores, sections of Austin are still considered a “food desert,” according health and food researcher Mari Gallagher, who coined the term.

To be considered a food desert, at least 33 percent of the area’s population has to live further than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, according to criteria by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Gallagher connects the dots between health issues and food deserts in her reports, noting that Austin’s food deserts include high levels of cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and diabetes among residents.

But health isn’t the only concern.

Transforming vacant lots into gardens, farmers markets and grocery stores would provide much-needed employment, and keep people off the street, according to Mark Allen, chairman of National Black Wall Street Chicago.

“The land,” he said, “is there, the workforce is there, and the market is there. Then, when you finally get a store in the neighborhood like a Whole Foods, you already have a clientele.”

Allen is critical of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his $40 million job-creation fund, money he says is going unused, especially in neighborhoods like Austin. Allen said Austin’s aldermen should be asking the mayor what he’s doing with the money.

But 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham insists the money is being used for programs in Austin.

“Sure, there are a lot more opportunities to put kids to work, but we need a plan,” she said. “You just can’t go to the mayor demanding funds without a plan in place.”

Graham said she wants the community to be involved in crafting those plans. To that end, she’s currently hosting a series of community forums to address issues residents find important. More full-service grocery stores are among those issues, highlighted at a recent community forum earlier this month — hosted the same week upscale grocery store Whole Foods announced plans for a store in Englewood.

Still, Graham maintains that she’s proud of the three existing farmers markets in the 29th Ward, as well as the Root Riot community garden on Waller Avenue.

Austin has five farmers markets: PCC Produce Market, Austin Town Hall Farmers Market, Columbus Park Farmers Market, LaFollette Park Farmers Market and the Austin Farmers Market. Full-service grocery store Praxis Marketplace, meanwhile, has plans to come to the neighborhood as early as next year.

But longtime resident Morton would like to shop at Jewel and remembers when the grocery store was located in Austin in the early 1970s.

Morton and Graham, however, argue that more grocery stores won’t solve the problem if people aren’t educated about healthy eating.

“People are asking for more vegetables, but when some of the stores carry them, they go bad,” Graham said. “The truth of the matter is that a combination of things needs to happen.”

Morton agrees that it will take a community effort.

Her organization, The Woman of God’s Design, last year invited an executive chef to host a healthy cooking demonstration at the Westside Health Authority’s offices. She’d like to host more events like that in the community.

“I think part of it is: we know on a basic level we should be eating fruits and vegetables,” she said, “but for not having it for so long; even if we can afford it, now what do I do with it?”


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