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Michelle Obama Joins Food Desert Fight

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By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –

Keisha Abrams, a 43-year-old diabetic, has shopped at a South Side Walgreens for 20 years and now shops there even more since the drugstore chain sells fresh fruits and vegetables. “I spend just about as much time here (at Walgreens) as I do at home. The employees know me well and I know them and I am thankful to Walgreens for offering fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said, emotionally. “And I thank First Lady Michelle Obama for bringing awareness to this problem that has attached itself to the Black community.”

On Tuesday Abrams joined First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at her favorite Walgreens, 11 East 75th Street, to talk about the need to end food deserts. The Walgreens stop was one of three for the first lady who also visited Iron Street Urban Farm and later attended an evening fundraiser in the West Loop. Earlier Obama attended a mayoral summit at City Hall, which consisted of eight mayors from across the country along with executives from major grocery store chains, such as Jewel, Dominick’s, Save-A-Lot, and Aldi.

As a result of the summit, grocery store executives committed to opening 17 new stores in Chicago over the next few years. They include a new Save-A-Lot store in the North Lawndale community on the West Side by year-end and one in the Grand Boulevard, West Pullman, Morgan Park, Calumet Heights, West Englewood, and Englewood communities on the South Side and one in the Austin community on the West Side, all by spring 2012. For Obama, the homecoming brought back memories of when she observed people buying groceries at unusual places. “I can remember seeing people buy their groceries at gas stations at ridiculous prices because there were no stores that sold healthy foods,” Obama recalled. “A lot of people don’t have the time or money to travel outside their community to reach stores that do sell fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, so they go to the closest store and buy whatever is there.”

And when it comes to healthy eating, especially for children, Obama said America should to do more than just give ‘lip service.’ “We can talk all we want about making healthy choices about the food we serve our kids, but if parents don’t have anywhere to buy those foods, then that’s all it is - it’s just talk,” explained Obama. “Imagine what we could achieve if mayors across the country started taking on this issue. Think about all the jobs we could create, all the neighborhoods we could begin to transform and what it means when our children finally get the nutrition they need to grow up healthy. I am confident that - one neighborhood, one community, one city at a time - we can ensure that all our kids have the happy, healthy futures they deserve.”

The first lady’s appearance was closed to the public but well attended by Black elected officials including Alderman Roderick Sawyer, whose Sixth Ward includes the Walgreens Obama visited. “Healthy eating is very important to the Black community because studies have shown that those who eat healthy live longer,” Sawyer told the Crusader. “And at a time when Black males are being murdered or sent to prison at alarming rates, we need to make sure that there are stores like Walgreens in the Black community that sell food items to keep us healthy.” Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell also attended and said “I spoke with several CEOs today about possibly opening up stores in my ward and they were generally interested in exploring ways to do so,” she said. “In my ward there are very few obstacles that would prevent more grocery stores from opening. Available land is not a problem. And financial incentives are not a problem.”

One problem Alderman Leslie Hairston (Fifth Ward) said that she sees is the misconception by corporate America that there is no money to be made in the Black community. “There is plenty of money to be made in the Black community,” Hairston added. “I think if corporations can overcome this perception that there is no money to be made in the Black community then we can start to move forward in getting more businesses to operate in our communities.” And Emanuel pledged to continue fighting to eliminate food deserts, which he said exist primarily in underserved, economically deprived communities.

“It is unacceptable that a half-million Chicagoans do not have access to healthy, fresh foods for their family and I am committed to the elimination of these food deserts in our city,” said Emanuel, just before he introduced the first lady. “I am grateful to First Lady Michelle Obama, grocery executives and mayors who joined us today for their commitment to working together to ensure that residents have access to the foods they need to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.”

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