Chicago Oversells Food Desert Victories

This week the office of Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel released a victorious press release about how it had "reduced food deserts in low-income areas by more than 20 percent." But local journalists say the administration's numbers are vastly overstated.

Combating food deserts — areas of the city where people have little or no access to supermarkets, grocery stores, and fresh food — was a big part of Emanuel's platform when he was campaigning for mayor. But according to the Chicago Tribune, the Emanuel administration has fallen short of its stated goals and has been framing its press releases so its results look much more significant than they have been.

"Eleven vacant lots Emanuel called on grocery store chains to develop remain empty," Chicagoist's Chuck Sudo reports. "Three of nine Walgreen's locations that serve fresh fruits and vegetables are not located in food deserts (Emanuel announced Walgreen's would sell fresh produce at 39 locations); and only four of 17 announced grocery stores have opened in food deserts (two of those were approved by the Daley administration)."

Chicago Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart writes that the city's food desert population had not been reduced by anywhere near the 20 percent the city announced. According to Ruthhart, the Emanuel administration has frequently said there are nearly 450,000 Chicagoans living in food deserts. But to get to that 20 percent figure, they had to ignore most of those people and concentrate only on the 100,000 people with the very lowest incomes who live the farthest away from access to fresh food.

Reducing food deserts in the very worst areas by 20 percent is still progress, but those 100,000 people are less than a quarter of the people living in Chicago food deserts.

"By framing the issue that way, Emanuel proclaimed the city had reduced its food deserts by more than 20 percent," Ruhart says. "But when the Tribune asked how much the city's overall food desert population had dropped by, the figure was much smaller: 4.7 percent."