[текст]Mayor Rahm Emanuel has rushed to declare "great progress" in the war on food deserts, but the Tribune has found that many of his announcements about making healthy foods more readily available to Chicagoans have fallen short.
Among the findings:
•Two years ago, Emanuel proclaimed that Walgreen Co. would be selling fresh fruits and vegetables at 39 food desert stores by this June. City Hall counts nine that are open, but three of those are not in food deserts.
•The mayor also announced that 17 new grocery stores would open in food deserts. Nearly two years later, just four of those are open and one is being built, with at least two of them approved before Emanuel took office.
•Emanuel called on grocery CEOs at a "food desert summit" to build stores on 11 parcels primed for development. All 11 lots remain vacant.
After the Tribune contacted several supermarket and drugstore companies this month about the gap between what Emanuel pledged and what has been delivered, the mayor's press office put out a news release claiming its success in eliminating food deserts.
But in doing so, Emanuel aides moved the goal posts by narrowing the focus to a fraction of the city's food desert population — those who have the lowest incomes and live the farthest from stores. Before then, Emanuel had framed up the issue in broader terms to emphasize that the problem as more far-reaching.
"We've generally made good progress," said Michael Negron, Emanuel's policy chief who oversees the administration's food desert efforts. "We are working with the different chains to get them to open (stores) on timelines that remain aggressive, and we anticipate more opening in the coming months and year."
The food desert situation reflects a pattern with many of Emanuel's major initiatives: hold a flurry of events on the same topic meant to convey a sense of momentum on an issue and put out numbers that don't always hold up to closer scrutiny. Past reports in the Tribune have shown that dynamic unfolding on the administration's overestimated savings from switching the city's garbage collection system, overstated job creation numbers at his frequent corporate announcements and delayed projects at his Chicago Infrastructure Trust.
Vacant lots, fewer stores
Emanuel made combating the city's food deserts one of the core issues of his campaign for mayor. They're primarily located on the South and West sides, and leading research has shown that about 70 percent of those residing in Chicago food deserts are African-American. When the mayor is asked about dissatisfaction among black voters with his job performance, he has brought up his work to reduce food deserts as a point in his favor.
About a month after taking office, Emanuel held a food desert summit in June 2011.
In a wood-paneled conference room with executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreen Co., Aldi and other grocery chains seated to either side, Emanuel unveiled food desert maps. The mayor "built detailed business cases for specific plots of land in each desert area," according to an administration news release recounting the event.
More than two years later, those 11 plots Emanuel highlighted are empty, with little more than cracked concrete, overgrown weeds and scattered trash.
"Something like that is a starting point. It shows you brought some thought to the process," Negron said of the parcels the mayor pitched as open for grocery store development. "But when you go into the planning process and are actually looking for a site, you might find other areas make more sense."
Two weeks after the summit, Emanuel stood with Walgreen CEO Gregory Wasson to announce the company would add fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to 39 of its stores in food deserts over the next two years.
Walgreen fell far short. Spokesman Michael Polzin said the company added healthy foods to 15 food desert stores. He would not identify them, citing "competitive reasons."
In response to Tribune questions, the Emanuel administration provided the locations of nine Walgreens stores where fruits and vegetables are now sold and explained that the other six stores the company had counted are not in food deserts. The Tribune found an additional three stores the city counted that also are not in food deserts, according to the city's maps. An Emanuel aide said some of those stores are on the periphery of food deserts.
"It's not unusual for innovative programs like this to take several years to progress before they hit their stride," Polzin said. "As we learn more about what works and what doesn't at these locations, we are refining our approach to ensure we meet our customers' needs and go forward with a successful business model."
A month after that announcement, the mayor's office said Walgreen would build 12 new stores in food deserts on top of the 39 it said it would expand. Polzin said Walgreen never committed to build the 12 new stores. An Emanuel spokesman did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.
Emanuel's announcements went beyond aisles of fruits and vegetables at Walgreens stores. In October 2011, the mayor welcomed first lady Michelle Obama back home to draw attention to the food desert issue.
"We have a commitment, over the next couple years, of three dozen stores to open up or be retrofitted here in the city of Chicago in our designated food desert areas," said Emanuel as he stood in front of displays of apples and oranges at a South Side Walgreens.
Of those three dozen stores, 19 were Walgreens expansions Emanuel already had announced.
The other 17 new stores included what the mayor's office said were commitments from Save-A-Lot, Wal-Mart, Aldi and the upscale Mariano's chain. Nearly two years later, four of the 17 are open with another expected to be open by year's end. The city also notes the opening of Wal-Marts in Back of the Yards and Little Village that weren't part of the company's initial announcement.
According to the mayor's office, Mariano's was to build three stores in food deserts. One is open in Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side. A second under construction is in the South Loop, which is not a food desert. A third Emanuel touted for Bronzeville, but Mariano's declined to comment on whether it's pursuing a store in that neighborhood.
Of the nine Save-A-Lot stores the mayor announced, only one has opened, and it already was being built before Emanuel announced it.
As mayor-elect, Emanuel attended a March 2011 ribbon-cutting to mark the opening of an additional five Save-A-Lots that opened in food deserts. The next year, two were shuttered as part of a strategy to close "underperforming or non-strategic" stores, according to the company.
Negron, the mayor's policy chief, said the administration isn't disappointed that so few of the stores it predicted have opened. He did, however, point to the sluggish and competitive nature of the grocery industry.
"We've still got responsive partners. They're working with us," Negron said. "We expect there will be continued grocery stores opening in food deserts over the next year, and all the (food desert) numbers we're tracking will continue to go down."
After the Tribune asked questions about Emanuel's progress on food deserts this month, the administration put out a news release claiming "great progress" on the issue.
As Emanuel has emphasized the importance of battling food deserts, he frequently has referred to the nearly 450,000 people who live without access to healthy foods. The administration derived that number from a 2011 map that tallied how many Chicagoans live more than a half-mile from a grocery store of at least 2,500 square feet (excluding the city's 10 wealthiest neighborhoods where City Hall presumed residents could get to a grocery store).
But this month, when gauging the progress the city had made on cutting down food deserts, Emanuel staffers used a different set of measurements: the 100,159 low-income Chicagoans who lived more than 1 mile from a 10,000-square-foot grocery store. By narrowing the income demographic and focusing on the smaller pool of people who live farther away from a store, Emanuel proclaimed that low-income residents living in food deserts had decreased by more than 20 percent to 79,434.
The decrease is much less when looking at how the mayor originally framed up the issue. For low-income people living more than a half-mile from a store, the drop was just 3.4 percent, or about 7,750 people, city figures showed. Overall, the 446,040 people living in food deserts had shrunk to 425,284, or 4.7 percent, according to data City Hall released Tuesday in advance of the Tribune publishing this story.
In addition, the administration counted one of the two Save-A-Lot stores that closed when coming up with its numbers.
"We think we've made great strides with the folks who need access to healthy food the most," Negron said in defending the city's analysis. "You have to measure toward the outcome you're trying to effect. Our focus is on low-income families who are over a mile from decent-size grocery stores."
Researcher Mari Gallagher, whose groundbreaking 2006 study on Chicago food deserts helped popularize the term, said the city's numbers are flawed in several ways.
City Hall's analysis does not evaluate what stores sell. It uses a list of businesses with retail food licenses and throws out gas stations, convenience stores and other establishments with names that don't appear to be grocery stores.
To truly measure food deserts, Gallagher said, the city shouldn't rely on any single distance or store size. Instead, fieldwork is required to determine what foods stores actually sell, and the city must be evaluated on a block-by-block basis to determine a reasonable distance to a store for each neighborhood, she said.
Gallagher's study seven years ago found more than 600,000 Chicagoans lived in food deserts. An update in 2011, released shortly after Emanuel succeeded Mayor Richard Daley, showed the number had shrunk to 383,954.
Progress on some fronts
While some of Emanuel's proclamations have fallen short, Gallagher said the mayor deserves credit for "creating a lot of good energy" in focusing on the issue and coming up with creative alternatives.
That has included two converted CTA buses, dubbed Fresh Moves, that drive around the city's food desert neighborhoods selling fruits and vegetables. Emanuel also secured corporate contributions from Safeway and Kraft to fund five West Side farmer's markets in food deserts the last two years, although the administration hasn't met a goal of adding five more on the South Side this year.
Emanuel also passed a city ordinance that loosened the red tape on urban agriculture operations, making it easier for them to sell their food. Iron Street Farm on the South Side has garnered a lot of attention from the administration.
The mayor has made at least three visits, including one with Michelle Obama. At a ribbon-cutting to open the farm in July 2011, Emanuel said the operation would farm 7 acres and employ up to 150 people.
Two years later, the operation farms 2.5 acres, has 20 full-time employees and 30 summer interns and taps other students for a six-week paid program. Erika Allen, who runs the farm, chalked up the slower start to a dispute with the person who owns the land.
Still, she said Emanuel has made urban agriculture easier.
"There has been a culture shift from just wanting to see things proceed to actually getting things off the ground," Allen said. "The amount of understanding and movement has been overwhelming."
Gallagher applauded the food buses and farmer's markets Emanuel has added, but said the biggest results will be tied to more grocery stores. So far, Emanuel's predictions of store openings have far outnumbered actual ribbon-cuttings.
"I don't know if he thought it would go more quickly or if he went into it naively," Gallagher said of the mayor. "These grocery store deals are difficult. They always take longer and the politicians tend to over-promise."