Commentary: Food businesses sprout up in Chicago's food deserts

Credit: The Hatchery | The Hatchery, a food business incubator in the Garfield Park community, helped food businesses thrive through the pandemic.

Being a new mother lead me to becoming a community organizer. Even though I had few obstacles during my pregnancy and giving birth, my breastfeeding journey was rocky, which led me to learn about the disparities of breastfeeding, especially for Black women.

As I did research about my struggles with breastfeeding and being a new mother, I learned lots about babies' first nutrition, mother's milk. Even with all the benefits of breastfeeding, Black women are still not breastfeeding as long as our white and Latinx counterparts. This is the foundation to human nutrition and provides the basis for healthy communities.

And as I continued to create spaces for community in my new home with my children on a new side of town, Austin on the West Side, my eyes were opened to the void. I saw vacant lots and vacant buildings, which led me to see the opportunities that were everywhere.

Around this time, the Austin Community Food Co-op was created with the goal of providing a sustainable grocery option for the Austin neighborhood and surrounding communities. The co-op became a movement for food justice in Austin. We looked at gaps in the community when it came to healthy food options. In Austin, as well as most West Side communities, residents must go outside of the community to get quality food products. Tens of millions of dollars leave the West Side, going to other towns and Chicago neighborhoods. It's unacceptable for Austin, with a population of almost 100,000, to have only a handful of fresh food options in a world-class city like Chicago.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, West Side residents were devastated. What it revealed was how many people were missing life's basics. The lack of proper housing, consistent health care and healthy food options became apparent. What the COVID-19 pandemic really revealed was the pandemic of isolation that residents have been dealing with for decades. Residents are isolated in their homes by the fear of violence, which also keeps residents from connecting as a community.

Historically, especially for Black people, food has been a way for their communities to connect. With the lack of spaces for residents to come together for nourishment and community, new city initiatives to generate food businesses were started. The Hatchery, a food business incubator in the Garfield Park community, helped food businesses thrive through the pandemic.

Alongside the possibilities of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot's Invest South/West Initiative, now is the time to create and sustain businesses in historically disinvested areas. Here are some examples of those underway: The Austin Community Food Co-op, Forty Acres Fresh Market (Austin), the Community Grocer Initiative (West Garfield Park), Healthy Lifestyle Hub (Auburn Gresham) and Go Green on Racine (Englewood).

Add to that the Chicago City Council's recent passage of an ordinance to support the business activities of urban agriculture, which allows community residents to grow and harvest their own food. This ordinance allows community gardens and urban farms to apply for and receive a license to sell whole, uncut and unprocessed produce directly to community residents, restaurants, food stores and wholesalers from an on-site produce stand. 

Gaps still exist for creating sustainable food businesses in Black communities, but we are seeing the possibility of what a more food-secure community can and should look like when plentiful, healthy food options are available nearby.

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