West Side Grocery Store Closure Highlights Food Inequities in Chicago

Screencap from WTTW video featuring GPCC's Theron Hawk discussing Aldi closure.

Read full article

Theron Hawk has lived in West Garfield Park all his life. He loves the area, especially the park and its conservatory. About 10 years ago, he moved to the 3800 block of West Monroe Street, right behind the area’s Aldi.

“Of course, Aldi was the asset,” Hawk said. “I got rid of my car, that’s why it was so easy for me to make the change.”

West Garfield Park, like other areas on the South and West sides, face low food access, with few grocery store options.

Now, the West Side has one less grocery store. Last month, Aldi shuttered its West Garfield Park location. A spokesperson for Aldi said the store closed because of declining sales.

Hawk says he now has to take an Uber to a Whole Foods on Halsted and Madison streets to get fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We have a store directly across the street from Aldi,” Hawk said. “It has a sign that says Madison Supermarket, but they’re not a supermarket. They’re like a candy store, a cigarette store, can’t buy a loaf of bread there, can’t buy a gallon of milk there.”

Residents say the closure worsens the area’s already inequitable access to food, and some are calling for the former Aldi building to be sold to another grocer. Meanwhile, food advocates say the situation points to a larger issue of food insecurity across the city, particularly in low-income and Black and brown communities that have faced decades of disinvestment.

“If one store leaves and then we’re screwed, then we really have a problem about the food infrastructure and ecosystem in communities,” said Angela Odoms-Young, associate professor at Cornell University in the Division of Nutritional Science.

Often referred to as food deserts — when residents have to travel long distances to access fresh, healthy and culturally relevant food — community advocates prefer the term food apartheid, which encompasses the root causes of inequitable food access, like disinvestment and structural racism, Odoms-Young said.

“When you have to rely on a very small store, like a corner store, to be the main source of your meals, that means that you are limited in the options that can be there. It’s not the sole responsibility of the corner store owner to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for an entire community. It’s about having options, it’s about having nourishment. It’s about thinking about what’s local and what’s in season,” said Ruby Ferguson, Chicago’s Food Equity Policy Lead.

Low food access can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but it also has a mental health impact, Odoms-Young said.

“The mental health impact is one of lack of caring, when you feel that people don’t care about your community, and you’re constantly pushing, advocating,” Odoms-Young said.

When grocery stores close, it can cause people to feel hopeless, according to Odoms-Young. “You had very little and now you have even less.”

Odoms-Young and Ferguson say the key to addressing food apartheid includes listening and responding to community needs.

“Place-based solutions have lasting results,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson says the Food Equity Council will use dollars allocated by the city from the American Rescue Plan to invest in community-driven solutions, like mom-and-pop grocery stores with deeper community connections or supporting urban agriculture and local growers.

In West Garfield Park, Hawk hopes the Aldi can be replaced by a Black-owned grocer. While the closure has made getting groceries more difficult for him, Hawk says he is more concerned about older residents in the area who might not be able to use apps like Uber to get to another store.

“I think our community deserves better,” Hawk said.