Healthy Snacks Reach a Chicago Food Desert

Nonprofit corner store considered an experiment

Published in CSP Daily News

CHICAGO -- A new and clean corner store in Chicago is taking on a food desert by stocking a variety of fresh foods and snacks in addition to the processed snacks common in the neighborhood.

The store, Louis Groceries, is almost has the white starkness of a hospital room, according to a WBEZ Radio report, but color from the food explodes on the shelves. It's stocked with fresh spinach, celery, mushrooms, limes and pears. And customers speak glowingly about the store's Amish chicken or share recipes inside, according to the report.

Louis Groceries serves residents in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. In this immediate area, fresh-food options are limited, and Louis Groceries is a nonprofit store with the mission to get people to eat better.

Shopper Kevin Foston visits daily now, having discovered it on his way to the gas station in the next block that also sells food. The unhealthy kind.

"I hate to say this but yeah, I was going to buy some junk food. Don't print that. Just me saying that lets you know the real value of this place. Most of the people in this community--that's what we had to look forward to," Foston, a graphic designer, told the radio station.

Near the store's cash register is what staff call the "healthy row," with items like trail mix and salt-free or sugar-free snacks. Louis Groceries wants to improve what people in the neighborhood eat, so yes, there's fruit, nuts and apple chips, but they compete with processed junk food and rainbow-colored sugary drinks, too.

"Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola I would say are our top sellers," said Terri Zhu, the store program director/manager. "But people have been buying produce. I would say grapes and bananas." She said there's no disconnect between the healthy mission of offering fresh food and good meat alongside snack foods.

"The idea is for people to make a choice. So we're not going to take away your Frito-Lay from you," Zhu said.

Since Louis Groceries is non-profit, it can afford to experiment and make risky financial choices, like not selling much fresh food at first. The idea is to solve a problem that other food advocates encountered, according to the report.

They learned that plopping crisp vegetables and ripe fruit in communities doesn't mean customers will automatically purchase them if those items haven't been in their diets. So, Louis Groceries fills in the gap with education, to build demand for the healthy stuff over the long haul. Hence, it offers healthy cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes on site.

"A lot of activity around food deserts have been very supply focused, like we need to put supermarkets in these areas," Zhu said.

Zhu said the idea is to get people to eat healthier--not just give them access.

Nonprofit grocers are trending across the country. Portland, Ore., opened one a year and a half ago. One is scheduled to open this spring in suburban Philadelphia.

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