Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Unexpected Oasis

Today, instead of pointing out yet another dreary problem that confronts our country, I'd like to offer up some good news. For years, we have been hearing about "food deserts," those urban areas that lack sources of healthy foods, but have unhealthy convenience food in abundance. You can see these food deserts everywhere - in inner cities, in small towns along interstate highways, and even in some suburbs where fast food chains and convenience stores line the streets and grocery stores are few and far between. All the nutrition guidelines in the world will not help individuals and families living in food deserts eat as well as they could.

That's why it is exciting to learn that Walgreens is doing something about this lack of healthy food options.  I remember Walgreens as being a Midwestern old-timey five-and-dime chain, best known for its luncheon counters. In recent years, I have noticed more Walgreens stores opening on corners in my Southern city as the chain successfully expanded to become the largest drug store chain in the United States. And now, Walgreens has taken that revitalization to a new level - that of offering groceries and fresh foods in some of its urban Chicago stores.

Food deserts are a big problem in Chicago. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 600,000 Chicago residents live in neighborhoods that are either lacking or too far away from conventional grocery stores. And Walgreens has a large presence in inner-city Chicago, making it an ideal partner to get groceries, such as milk, meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, into those areas. Of course, this move isn't entirely altruistic - after all, Walgreens is a publicly traded company (NYSE, NASDAQ: WAG) that has shareholders to consider - but it does carry more than a whiff of civic responsibility. You see, Walgreens was founded in Chicago more than 100 years ago and, according to its press release, was asked by Mayor Richard M. Daley's office to start offering groceries in some neighborhoods where grocery stores were scarce. Taking this concept even further, Walgreens has created a partnership with local medical entities to pilot a program designed to educate residents about the link between healthy food choices and preparation and better management of chronic illnesses like diabetes.

This all sounds like a win-win situation to me, one that combines a basic tenet of capitalism of being the first to enter a niche market, and the do-good-ness of a hometown hero. The short-term outcomes may be that individuals and families living near these Walgreens will have expanded food choices and Walgreens may increase its market share over competitors.  It will take awhile to see the longer-term result of better health due to access to healthy foods, but it's not a leap to envision that those results will occur. Research has already shown that people who live in food deserts are more likely to become ill with conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity - all conditions that can be helped or prevented with proper nutrition. So it stands to reason that the availability of appropriate foods could counteract or even prevent those conditions.

If you want to read more about food deserts, especially in Chicago, here is a report by Mari Gallagher and Associates, the firm that coined the term. It has some interesting facts, such as many who live in food deserts have incomes over $100,000, as well as important implications for our built environments.

Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism pulled together a nice video in which residents of food deserts in Chicago are interviewed. The video highlights the lack of access to real food that many people face and allows us to see the type of establishments that residents must frequent if they are limited to shopping in their neighborhoods.

So kudos to Walgreens, the City of Chicago, Northwestern Medicine, and Near North Health Service Corporation for this innovative partnership. Walgreens is keeping a close eye on the initial 10 stores that are offering groceries. If they work well, meaning if they make money from the groceries, the concept could be expanded to other stores, and other cities. Keep your fingers crossed.


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