HYDE PARK — Black Chicagoans make up 30 percent of the population in Chicago, but so far they account for more than 70 percent of coronavirus deaths in the city.
The numbers tell a story of unequal health care access, job access and community investment — and the lack of access to healthy foods is a huge contributor to chronic illness.
“Even if we had a perfect health care system … we would still see significant health disparities,” Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said this week. “That’s because in many of our neighborhoods, it’s hard to access healthy food because of high cost [and] few grocery stores.”
In the case of food deserts, social scientists and nutritionists have done countless studies that all conclude the same thing: restricted access to healthy foods may magnify health disparities that lead to higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Food deserts are defined as a census tract populated with low-income residents who must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket. In some Chicago neighborhoods, food deserts are a problem that have persisted for decades.
Residents living in many South and West side neighborhoods have to travel far to find a full-service grocery store, and plopping new stores in food deserts won’t solve the problem.
“When they’ve gone in and put in a store, a lot of times what people eat doesn’t immediately change. It’s not just the store,” said Daniel Block, who is a professor of geography at Chicago State University, as well as an adjunct professor in the Departments of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University and Urban Planning at UIC.
“If you don’t have a full-service grocery store nearby, and you don’t have good access to a car, and you don’t have a lot of money and you combine all these things together, it makes it difficult. The geographic access is part of it, but it’s also monetary access and having the time to plan meals,” said Block, the co-author of “Chicago: A Food Biography,” a history of Chicago told through its food system.
To try and combat food deserts, healthcare disparity and related problems, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Monday the formation of a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team comprised of personnel from provider networks and local activists.
The city will expand its outreach efforts in “economically vulnerable communities,” particularly those on the West and South sides, which have been hard hit by the virus, Lightfoot said. The outreach will focus on people older than 50 and those with underlying health conditions, as those people are most at risk from coronavirus.
“We are all in this crisis together — but we are not experiencing this crisis in the same way,” Lightfoot said. “The distribution of this disease tells a story about resources and inequality.”
A white Chicagoan lives 8.8 years longer than a Black Chicagoan — before COVID. More than half that gap is driven by chronic diseases: heart disease, lung disease, smoking-related illnesses and diabetes. Almost 2 of every 5 Black adults in Chicago has been diagnosed with high blood pressure. Almost twice as many African-American adults smoke and live with asthma compared to white adults, according to Arwady.
These issues have been addressed before, including food deserts, which were on former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s list of things to address in his first 100 days when first elected in 2011. Yet, they persist, a fact that is not surprising to Gabrielle Darvassy, chef and owner of B’Gabs Goodies in Hyde Park, 1450 E. 57th St.
“When you live in a country that does not allocate its resources fairly, you will always have populations of people that will suffer greater,” Darvassy said. “That happens from food, education, medical resources, housing. None of this is new. Does one thing effect the other? Absolutely.”
Darvassy’s Hyde Park establishment B’Gabs Goodies, has been described as more of a vegan community center than a restaurant. It was first opened it in Woodlawn, a neighborhood considered a food desert, before moving to more affluent Hyde Park. Along with being a restaurant, B’Gabs offers education, juices, cleanses and raw meal plans to customers. Darvassy said she’s been keeping tabs on the spread of the coronavirus by monitoring the CDC website, and predicted it would hit the Black community hard.
“One of the things I said was when it hits us, it’s gonna hit hard. It’s gonna hit hard and fast, because we don’t have the resources,” Darvassy said.
She added that it’s important to note that often people who do not live in food deserts and are more affluent often eat food that is not good for them.
“We can put some of this on food and food deserts, but let’s be clear. Even those people who have the option to eat organic, local, whole plant-based foods still choose to eat like crap because we are a country of convenience.”
Darvassy noted there is one important difference, however.
“[White] people have access to high-quality food and still choose to eat like s—. They are still buying Dorito’s and potato chips and all these cookies for your kids, and Pop-Tarts. They still choose to eat horrible.
“But, they have the medical resources because you have the higher income bracket.”
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