Mayor Cooks Up City-Owned Supermarket Plan Amidst Food Desert Crisis

Mayor Cooks Up City-Owned Supermarket Plan Amidst Food Desert CrisisSource: Google Street View
Jo Marquez
Published on November 29, 2023

In urban areas where the acquisition of fresh produce presents a challenge, the leadership of Chicago is considering establishing a municipally owned grocery store as a panacea for food deserts. With major retailers such as Walmart and Whole Foods having recently departed from Chicago's southern and western neighborhoods, Mayor Brandon Johnson and his administration are diligently searching for innovative approaches to ensure that residents are not left without access to fresh, healthful provisions such as wilted produce and stale bread.

The proposed establishment of a municipally owned grocery store is part of a wider effort aimed at addressing the issue of food deserts and is intended to guarantee that all residents have access to fresh produce and other healthful food alternatives.

As the Chicago Tribune reports, the shuttering of grocers has turned neighborhoods like Englewood into veritable nutritional wastelands, with some locals left to navigate a mishmash of corner stores and pharmacies in desperate search of something as simple as fresh mint. These closures have left nearly two-thirds of West Englewood residents living more than a half-mile from their nearest grocery store, feeding into a larger narrative of food inequity that has plagued the city's less affluent neighborhoods.

But the buzz of activity around the idea of a government-run supermarket has raised eyebrows, and not just from those who hanker for their government to stick to the basics. Critics wonder whether the city, grappling with its own gaping $538 million budget hole, could even feasibly manage this ambitious project. This skepticism was aired by industry and economic development experts who whispered their doubts to the Tribune, pointing out the complexities of managing a perishable inventory with razor-thin margins.

Despite these hurdles, the Economic Security Project, in an effort to lend a strategic hand to the undertaking, is working pro bono on a feasibility study. According to the Tribune, options on the table include everything from a city-operated store to the enlistment of private operators. It's a mélange of possibilities that S. Mayumi “Umi” Grigsby, the mayor’s policy chief, insists it isn't just about a traditional brick-and-mortar concept—a rebuff to critics who can't see past the produce aisle of conventional supermarkets.

Voices from Chicago's pavements seem mixed. Residents like Asiaha Butler dream of the days when fresh produce didn't require an out-of-the-way trek; she's casting her lot with local grocers or grassroots operations over the clunky machinery of city services. "Just for mint, I have to go out of my ZIP code," Butler lamented, according to the Tribune. Meanwhile, some, like former city employee Tim Thomas, view the proposal through a rosier lens, likening the city's potential involvement in grocery operations to other essential services like running water.

However, threading the needle between creating new city services and balancing the books remains a challenge that Johnson's administration cannot sidestep. The economic sustainability of a municipally owned store remains a hot potato, with the nitty-gritty details likely to determine whether Chicagoans will be browsing city-cultivated kale anytime soon.

Shoppers are keeping their fingers crossed that the final decision, expected post-study, doesn't lead to a repeat of the swift retreat of big-box stores from their neighborhoods—a cautionary tale of failed investments and food scarcity chronicled by the likes of the Fox Business as a stark reminder of the fragilities in the urban foodscape. In the meantime, Chicago waits with bated breath, hoping for solutions that don't just pad the produce section but heal the deep-seated economic divides.