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Food, mobility justice advocates join forces at the Chicago Food Justice Summit

5:53 PM CST on March 3, 2021

Altgeld Gardens residents returning from Rosebud Farm Stand on the dirt road next to the market a few years ago. The store, the only source for fresh groceries in the neighborhood, has since closed. Photo: John Greenfield

Each year, the Chicago Food Policy Action Council holds a summit that gathers urban farmers, public health advocates and food justice activists to discuss how Chicago’s food system can be made more sustainable and equitable, from improving food procurement for institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons, to securing land rights for growing food in communities that need it most. The 16th Annual Chicago Food Justice Summit, which started on February 25 and is running through March 6, included a session last Friday on the intersection of transportation and food access, with speakers from Active Transportation Alliance, the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago’s Children, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Representatives from each organization gave a presentation on their work, starting with Ruth Rosas of CLOCC. Rosas focused on CLOCC’s walkability studies and sidewalk assessments, stating that having safe, convenient conditions for walking are a priority for CLOCC because it supports the most accessible and affordable means of exercise, and sidewalks are a universally used piece of mobility infrastructure. “Maybe not everybody bikes or uses transit, but everybody uses a sidewalk. As soon as you leave your house it impacts how you feel, if you feel comfortable walking or not.”

The panel. Image: CLOCCC
The panel. Image: CLOCCC

CLOCC evaluates what Rosa described as “the four As” of walkability: aesthetics, availability (of amenities like grocery stores and other essential services), accessibility, and acceptability (if they are age-appropriate, socially and culturally appropriate, and safe.)  In conducting assessments with communities, CLOCC looks at street design elements—or lack thereof—like the presence and condition of crosswalks, speed bumps and traffic circles, as well as the behavior of drivers and pedestrians, particularly at intersections. CLOCC surveys neighborhoods to understand if people feel welcome and safe while on foot, and if they feel comfortable with the police presence in their area.

Food access is also part of the walkability evaluation. Rosas noted that eating habits are affected by the availability of food and the modes of transportation people rely on to access it. For people in areas with few to no grocery stores, the time and expense of traveling to shop for food is an additional barrier to accessing nutritious options. Rosas also pointed to the difficulty of getting a good breakfast for youth who walk to school in areas lacking grocery stores. With limited time before the school day begins, many young people make a less-than-ideal breakfast of packaged, processed snacks from corner stores.

Julia Gerasimenko and Alex Perez, advocacy managers at Active Transportation Alliance, then presented an overview of transit inequity in Chicago, including the disparity in the incidence of fatal traffic crashes, which in Chicago is higher in areas with a high number of residents experiencing economic hardship.

Image: Active Transportation Alliance
Image: Active Transportation Alliance

They also talked about the environmental impacts of highways and freight traffic on the West and South Sides. In addition, they said one in ten Cook County residents live in what they termed "transit apartheids" – areas with insufficient public transportation service due to longtime disinvestment. Gerasimenko outlined Active Trans’ priorities for the year for improving bus speeds and reliability: dedicated bus lanes, transit-friendly stoplight upgrades, and faster boarding practices, like rear-door boarding, all of which improve service and reduce commute times for bus commuters.

Gerasimenko then shared the results of a survey Active Trans conducted of transit riders, asking how the pandemic had affected their access to food. The vast majority of respondents who relied on food pantries were worried about pandemic safety on transit, and reported seeing other riders not following COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance. The lack of proximity of food pantries to bus and train stops was also a big concern.

Image: Active Transportation Alliance
Image: Active Transportation Alliance

Perez presented a series of maps he created that show the location of grocery stores and food pantries in Chicago, and their proximity to CTA rail stations and bus lines, and the concentration of households that don’t own personal vehicles. The final map overlaid all data points, revealing areas of the city, notably on the South, West, and far Southeast and Southwest Sides, with sparse grocery options and limited transportation infrastructure to travel to the closest store or food pantry.

Screen Shot 2021-02-26 at 11.28.38 AM
Image: Active Transportation Alliance

The final speaker was Vivi Moreno, a food justice organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Moreno said that before the pandemic, LVEJO was focused on securing long-term access to land trusts for farming in the area, but as unemployment and COVID positivity rates increased, the work shifted to emergency food access. To help feed neighborhoods that are home to many essential and undocumented workers, Moreno and members of the Getting Grown Collective created the mutual aid group Farm, Food, Familias, which now delivers 350 meals weekly to homes in Little Village, Englewood and South Chicago, communities heavily impacted by COVID-19.

Moreno said it was important for Farm, Food, Familias ("Families") to provide uplifting meals that were thoughtfully prepared and culturally appropriate. Five local chefs use donated produce from local farms like Urban Canopy, Gardeneers, Sweetwater Foundation, Closed Loop Farms and Catatumbo Cooperative Farm to prepare meals with flavors from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Farm, Food, Familias began with a team of five volunteers and has grown to a paid staff of twenty-five who, while delivering food, check in to see how families are faring and what else they may need. All meals – and soon produce boxes – from Farm, Food, Familia are delivered to recipients’ homes by vehicle.

The three presentations took the bulk of the session, so Q & A time was limited. I would have liked to have heard more about how the work of these three organizations intersect, or how they or other summit attendees could coordinate efforts for long-term policy wins. The session concluded with an action alert to support hunger strikers opposing the relocation of the General Iron metal shredding operation and the pollution it will bring to the Southeast Side.

The 16th Annual Chicago Food Justice Summit runs through March 5 & 6. Registration is free.

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