Tuesday, October 25, 2011

At Chicago Food Desert Summit, Good News For First Lady Michelle Obama

Chicago leads the way in improving access to healthy food with corporate support for farmers markets and local agriculture...
By Marian Burros
Chicago, Ill
- Michelle Obama was back home on Tuesday, her first public visit to Chicago since entering the White House. For the occasion she chose the South Side of the city where she was raised. The First Lady brought two other Chicagoans with her, first to Walgreens in the Chatham section and then to the 7-acre Iron Street Urban Farm, located in what was once a truck depot: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, lately White house chief of staff, and Sam Kass, who went to Washington to cook for the Obamas, and ended up as the point man on the First Lady's childhood obesity initiative, Let’s Move! (Above: Emanuel and Mrs. Obama visiting Iron Street Urban Farm)

It was a full day for Emanuel, who had gathered together mayors from eight cities for a food desert summit to exchange ideas about ways to bring healthy and affordable foods into communities that lack access. Emanuel and Kass met with the mayors for a morning roundtable discussion held at Iron Street, and continued the discussion over a locally sourced organic lunch at mk The Restaurant. Mrs. Obama closed their convivium with remarks at the Walgreens store.

“This Mayor’s Summit today is just an important step towards what we hope will be a national effort across this country for mayors and cities and towns," Mrs. Obama said. "It is you who are setting the tone for what this country can do for our children and families.”

The First Lady's visit was sandwiched between a midday campaign fundraiser in Detroit and an evening fundraiser in Chicago, where she spoke about her husbands' efforts to create jobs. The trip on behalf of her own signature initiative also proved to be about putting people to work as much as it was about giving the disadvantaged access to fresh healthy food. Both Mrs. Obama and Emanuel emphasized the connection between getting healthy food to inner city populations and the creation of jobs and economic opportunities.

If Mayors across the US decide that building supermarkets and encouraging urban agriculture is vital to their communities, America will be transformed, Mrs. Obama said: "Think about all the jobs that would be created."

Chicago's private-sector agreements for food deserts...
In June, the newly elected Emanuel called together the CEOs of Walmart, Walgreens; Aldi and Roundy and the parent companies of Jewel and Dominick markets and providing them with maps of Chicago showing where food deserts exist. He promised them a fast track to build stores in underserved areas. (Above: The First Lady during her remarks at Walgreens)

Emanuel asked Mrs. Obama to come to Chicago for his announcement of some very good news: Three dozen stores have agreed to open or to retrofit their current stores in some of Chicago’s food deserts, bringing fifty jobs per store or about 1,800 new jobs.

There was more good news: With a $150,000 combined commitment from Kraft Foods Foundation and Safeway Foundation, Chicago will pilot up to five new farmers markets in food deserts on Chicago's west side over the next two years. The markets will feature local growers selling produce, accept LINK cards, and offer creative programming like cooking demonstrations and nutrition education. Walgreens and Aldo’s have agreed to buy local food raised by Iron Street Urban Farm and other urban agriculture projects.

At the Walgreens, Emanuel addressed the First Lady as 'Michelle' as he thanked her for her help in bringing the problems of underserved neighborhoods to national attention.  Details of commitments Emanuel has gotten from grocers to build markets in Chicago food deserts are here.

“Thank you for bringing together all the policies you focused on, turning blight into economic opportunity, Michelle," Emanuel said. "Thank you for your leadership.”

Mrs. Obama has gotten a similar private sector commitment on the national level: In July, she announced agreements with Walgreens, Walmart, SuperValu, Calhoun Grocers and Shoprite to build or expand 1,500 stores in food deserts, which will create what the White House says is "tens of thousands of jobs." The project will also bring healthier food to about 9.5 million of the 23.5 million people living in food deserts, according to the White House. Mrs. Obama's goal of eliminating the estimated 6,500 US food deserts by 2017 can "absolutely" be achieved, according to Sam Kass.

For her part, Mrs. Obama thanked her “dear friend and Chicago’s mayor,” adding that she was still getting used to his title, to which he responded loud enough to be heard: “So am I.”

Mrs. Obama said that even as she grew up in Chicago, small grocery stores were disappearing.

“We can talk all we want about making healthy choices about the food we serve our kids, but the truth is if parents don’t have anywhere to buy these foods, then all of that is really just talk," she said.

The First Lady spoke at Walgreens because it is already providing food in what was once a typical modern drugstore. Now it has a food section that includes not just apples, pears and bananas, but baby watermelons, peaches pears, mangos, cut up fruits including cantaloupe, berries and bagged salad, eggs, orange juice, sandwiches, salads, frozen and fresh dinners. In the next five years the company expects to retrofit 1,000 more of its 8,000 stores across the country.

“It’s been unbelievable for the bottom line,” said Joe Magnacca, president of the daily living products and solutions for Walgreens.

Prices are not as low as at a full-service supermarket but for some the trip to a supermarket requires a bus or taxi ride.

First Lady tours Iron Street Urban Farm..
From the store Mrs. Obama traveled to Iron Street Urban Farm, the site of the Mayors' morning meeting. The lush facility is run by Erika Allen, who grew up on a farm working alongside her father, Will Allen, who calls himself "the chief executive farmer" of Growing Power in Milwaukee. It has a two-pronged agenda: To eliminate food deserts and give local residents an opportunity to work. The Chicago farm is one of five Growing Power sites in Chicago. (Above: Mrs. Obama and Emanuel inside a hoop house at the farm with the Allens, standing)

Erika Allen has a masters in art therapy, but she discovered that before anything else “people need good food to eat.”

As dynamic as her father, who has a MacArthur genius award, in a year she has gotten the sustainable farm up and running in a desolate industrial neighborhood. The farm teaches people, many of whom have never held jobs, how to work as it raises vegetables and herbs 12 months a year, under hoop houses and indoors. It will shortly be raising tilapia in water that has been used first to raise crops.

Emanuel and Mrs. Obama took a lengthy tour of the farm with both Allens, and she seemed particularly intrigued by the compost piles, the result of many worms doing their job. One of the workers presented her with a worm to examine and it was obvious Mrs. Obama has had her hands in soil before: She didn’t flinch as she picked it up (above).

"It's alive!" Mrs. Obama said.

For Erika Allen, the First Lady’s visit “validates what we are doing.”

Allen said that without the changes Emanuel made in local laws, Growing Power would not have been able to stay in business. In July, he introduced an ordinance to the City Council, making urban agriculture a new zoning designation. Now urban gardens can be as large as 25,000 square feet; parking and fencing requirements on larger commercial farms have been relaxed. Hydroponics and aquaponics are now permitted, even the raising of honeybees in certain circumstances. The changes eliminate a lot of red tape.

Will Allen joined Mrs. Obama at the White House on the day she launched Let's Move!; urban agriculture and improving food access has been on the First Lady's mind since the start of her childhood obesity initiative. In September, Walmart, Mrs. Obama's largest corporate partner for Let's Move!, awarded Growing Power a $1 million grant.

During the Mayors’ summit, the change in zoning regulations was one of the ideas that struck the fancy of several attendees, including Heather McTeer, Mayor of Greenville, Miss, and Manuel Lozano of Badwin Park, Ca. Mayor McTeer said her city would love to have Walgreens sell fresh food in its stores. Mayor Lozano is now running unopposed for his 8th term, despite the fact that under his direction the city took all sodas and sports drinks out of vending machines it owns, and placed a six-month moratorium on building fast food restaurants.

There is a serious obesity epidemic in both of the cities.

“It’s encouraging to see so much happening,” said McTeer. “Everyone is taking the First Lady’s initiative very seriously.”

*Click here for the transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks at the Walgreens.  Emanuel's press release on the summit is here.

*Top and third photo by Getty; second via Mayor Emanuel's office; other photo by AP