Bring farmers markets to West Side

Despite a sputtering spring, it’s almost summer in Chicago, which means the city’s farmers markets will soon be in full swing. However, not all Chicagoans have access to market stalls and fresh produce.

Of the city’s 44 markets, only nine are located on the West Side. Among those, only one is south of the Eisenhower Expressway, leaving Lawndale and other lower West Side neighborhoods without easy access to the markets. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed to reduce the city’s food deserts, he needs to be more practical in his efforts to make affordable produce available to West Siders.

Emanuel and the City Council have introduced a number of food carts and small grocers to blighted neighborhoods in an attempt to eradicate food deserts—areas without access to fresh produce—according to an August 2013 press release from the mayor’s office. Although it may seem as if there has been significant progress, there are only seven food carts available on the lower West Side, below the Eisenhower Expressway. The city’s data tables list every retail location that carries any kind of food, including places like packing plants and Walgreen’s, as grocers.

Farmers markets aren’t the only fresh food providers the West Side is lacking. North Siders, who have access to the majority of the markets, also have nearby grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The South Side also has limited access to fresh produce, but the city has made strides to address the gaps there with grocery stores and farmers markets in neighborhoods like Englewood, where a Whole Foods is set to open soon. However, both the South and West sides need better access to fresh food, and until more permanent options are established. Farmers markets can help fill in fresh food gaps.

Farmers markets may have a reputation for targeting the rich who can afford high-priced organic produce, but a January 2011 study from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont found that farmers market goods are often the same price or cheaper than supermarket equivalents. Even low-income residents on the West Side can afford to spend on fresher foods from farmers markets if they are better quality than supermarket offerings.

Urban farming is another viable fresh food program worth the city’s investments. Urban farms use city spaces such as empty lots and vacant buildings to grow organic produce. The South Side already has a number of urban farms that contribute to farmers markets, and the West Side also has room to implement some of the farms in vacant buildings and empty lots.

However, providing fresh produce alone is not enough. There is a lack of nutritional education in Chicago’s public schools that also needs to be addressed. First lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to introduce healthier options in elementary schools nationwide was well-intended, but much of that food goes to waste because it is not what kids are used to eating, according to a 2012 survey of California schools by The California Endowment. Making nutritional education required at all schools would help future generations understand the importance of eating healthy foods rather than settling for what is available, which often means unhealthy options such as fast food in low-income areas.

Fortunately, the city has already set the gears in motion to deal with a lack of food availability, so turning its attention to the West Side would not require much extra effort. This summer, the city government should devise a comprehensive plan to include the West Side in changes to the city’s food systems.