Are food deserts just a mirage?

Are food deserts just a mirage?

“The South Side really has so much beauty,” she told me. “The old buildings, the lakefront.”

“I’m acclimated to the neighborhood now. But not everyone is able to.”

We were speaking of Woodlawn, Lyletta and I. She’s lived there 11 years, she knows everything about her neighborhood, she’s written about it extensively, she can’t afford to move.

Woodlawn has long had its troubles. It suffered severely in the recession, hit hard by a real estate bust which left a lot of half-finished construction and shuttered half-rehabbed buildings. Violent crime has skyrocketed, flummoxing police head Garry McCarthy. Lyletta calls the west side of her neighborhood in particular “a shooting gallery,” but is quick to insist that most of the people who live in Woodlawn are perfectly decent.

But in 11 years she’s seen a little improvement in one regard.

“When I first moved here, you couldn’t get any basics, anything.” The gas station shop in the neighborhood didn’t even stock milk. Now that a Walgreens has opened up at 67th and Stony, things have changed. She can get milk in the neighborhood, other groceries. But Walgreen’s is it.

Lyletta’s neighborhood is a so-called food desert.

Sometimes I read about these things, they seem a little remote. A little abstract. Ideas like “food desert” sometimes are reduced to a catchphrase, a trendy concern of well-meaning overeducated progressive white folks. Maybe there really isn’t such a thing.

My first question to Lyletta was whether she believed in the idea at all. Politely checking what was surely an impulse to laugh in my face, she answered without hesitation: “I believe in food deserts because I live in one.”

What does that mean, exactly, to her?

It means that the closest grocery stores are ten to twenty blocks away. It means she lives in a neighborhood where Peapod won’t deliver. It means there isn’t a very direct route via public transit to any store. It means there is a McDonald’s two blocks away.

Lyletta, however, is a cook, she is thrifty, she prefers fresh herbs to dried and grows them in her windowsill.

She learned how to cook as a kid at the elbows of her mother and grandmother, and at 4H. She learned a lot of baking in the southern tradition. Her range expanded when she picked up new things like coq au vin from a college friend’s family. Because she learned how to make everything from scratch she now considers many prepared things a colossal waste of money–things like salad dressing, salsa, Bloody Marys. And you can make things much better your own way. Lyletta’s way with a Bloody Mary is proprietary: I couldn’t get her to divulge the recipe.

In fact she doesn’t use many recipes, or if she does, it’s more as a springboard to something new. “I’m a Martha Stewart addict,” she confessed, but Martha’s recipe for strata has seen improvements in Lyletta’s kitchen. She told me a few of her secrets and I’m just not sure if I care to pass them on.

Aphorisms come tumbling out of Lyletta like she’s reading them out of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Or something.

“Margarine is an abomination unto God,” goes one, which emerges in our conversation about strata. “High prices keep out the riff raff,” goes another, an observation about everything from grocery stores to bars and restaurants–places she goes in order not to get harassed by riff raff.

She has an impressive command of pies, breads, mixed drinks, roasted fowl, fresh vegetables. “I go through a box of fresh spinach a week.” She searches for good prices and doesn’t like to shop at a certain very expensive Hyde Park grocery store which shall remain nameless but rhymes with Measure Highland. “Those prices are insane,” she states, and a recent $6.99/lb for asparagus seems to prove her point. “I’m not going to give up asparagus.”

There’s a lot she won’t compromise on. She won’t shop at stores in which basics cannot be found. Basics, to her, are olive oil. Couscous. Capers.

“Save a Lot, Aldi, those stores don’t have capers.”

“Well,” I offered, “they do have some stuff. Those are stores on the south side that do have groceries. It’s better than nothing.”

No. Lyletta is insistent on this point. “This is a case where something is definitely NOT better than nothing. Those stores are shit. People shop there because they have to.”

To get fresh food Lyletta takes a combination of buses, trains, and taxis to reach and return from Jewel or Dominicks, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods on Roosevelt, 87th Street Target, South Loop Costco. This takes hours, the bulk of a day.

It’s worse in the winter than the summer. During summer and fall, there are farmer’s markets. Her favorite is the one in Federal Plaza. There’s  now a weekly farmer’s market close to Lyletta’s house, the 61st Street market. Listening to the south side farmer’s market propaganda, one could be forgiven for thinking that the food desert problem has been solved, all is well, the farmer’s market has arrived. It begins to sound again like so much well-meaning-overeducated-white-folks rah rah. I asked Lyletta if she thought farmer’s markets really made any appreciable difference or if they were just some noble futile effort. “It’s not just ‘noble,'” she said, “we need food down here.”

I wanted Lyletta to comment on what she thought was the real cost of food inaccessibility. “The time and effort for me to get them,” she immediately answered. I clarified. “No, I mean not just to you but to the whole community. To Woodlawn.” “Time and effort,” she repeated. “To shop for groceries I am out of the neighborhood for hours every week. Hours I should be in my neighborhood. It takes my eyes off of the place.  I don’t know my neighbors. I can’t know the cars that should be in the neighborhood, the kids who should be here, if I’m gone.”

And not just her, remember. It’s everyone. Everyone in Woodlawn. Hours lost, whole days of hours lost. Hours which could be spent actually living in a neighborhood instead of regularly hunting and gathering far and wide.

It’s a given here in Hyde Park. For all its high prices, our large neighborhood grocery store is a major anchor in the community. It holds cooking classes, my daughter learned to quilt in the weekly quilting guild meetings there, it has a cafe on the premises, sells Christmas trees in the winter. Its courtyard alone is the site of the Hyde Park Garden Fair in the summer, the Book Fair in the fall, music performances. The market will roast whole lambs on a spit in the spring before gawking children, will grill burgers on sunny summer afternoons. Old folks share a bench in the sunshine, mothers with strollers gather for coffee. What would Hyde Park be without this place?

I’ve read a lot about what is required to create a community, and conversely, what a community cannot lack. Never have I read the idea that a community cannot function without a grocery store because the lack of groceries causes people to leave the neighborhood and be elsewhere instead of back at home creating their community.

But it makes more sense to me than just about any other theory I’ve ever heard.

Mariano’s, Pete’s, Dominick’s, what do you say? Why don’t you give Woodlawn a try?

All photos taken by Lyletta Robinson.

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