Vital Bridges Warns that Chicago Food Desert, Nutrition Problem is Likely Worsening

Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care Chief Health Care Strategist Debbie Hinde

(Chicago, IL) – January 5, 2012. With Chicago food deserts on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s agenda, a long-time Chicago-based nutrition expert has a 2012 New Year’s resolution to warn local leaders that the root cause of food deserts is being overlooked, which could lead to misplaced policy responses by the city.

Despite a report released in June 2011, claiming that Chicago food deserts had decreased by 39%, Debbie Hinde, Chief Health Care Strategist for the Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care/Heartland Health Outreach, Inc., says that the risk of inadequate nutrition—and thus chronic disease–for Chicago residents is actually accelerating.

Hinde says the culprit is: poverty.

“The real measure of the nutritional health of Chicago residents is not the distance between a person’s home and a supermarket,” said Hinde. “It’s not geography–it’s poverty that drives ‘food deserts’ and inadequate nutrition, resulting in chronic diseases that it breeds, such as diabetes.”

And Hinde says poverty in Chicago is accelerating.

Hinde pointed to a September 2010 study from Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center in Chicago, the parent organization of Vital Bridges, that revealed the number of Chicago residents living in poverty jumped from 555,391 in 2008 to 603,213 in 2009, an 8.6% increase.

“The basic reason that there are food deserts is because people don’t have enough money,” said Hinde, whose agency provides 500,000 free meals annually to 2,000 Chicago-area residents infected by HIV/AIDS and whose incomes average $700 per month.

“Imagine that you’re someone who receives $120 monthly in food stamps and you want your menu for the week to include a chicken, a couple of pork chops, some pasta, some fresh vegetables and fruit, well, you’re way beyond that $120,” said Hinde.

In 2011, the average monthly food stamp benefit per person in Illinois was $139.15.

“When there’s not enough money, a Jewel or Dominick’s can’t survive,” said Hinde.

The median Chicago household income slipped from $46,733 in 2008 to $45,734 in 2009, according to the Heartland study.

The local farmer’s markets is also not an adequate strategy to counter food deserts or inadequate nutrition because the produce is expensive, says Hinde.

“The typical farmer’s market is not cheap,” said Hinde. “Whether it’s $20 spent at a farmer’s market or $20 at a grocery store, the fact is that there is not enough money,” said Hinde.

“Because Vital Bridges can purchase non-brand–but nutritious–food items in bulk, our average meal costs $1.29,” said Hinde. “But a person living in poverty lacks that economic leverage.”

Hinde applauds Emanuel’s focus on food deserts and his efforts to bring 36 new supermarkets to underserved neighborhoods, but she warns that the underlying poverty problem remains unaltered and is growing.

“Mayor Emanuel’s attention to the issue of food deserts and his encouragement of grocery chain presence in poor neighborhoods are welcome steps,” said Hinde, “But it is important to remember that shortening the geographic distance between nutritious food and a poor person’s home has no affect on their ability to pay for the food.”

“We need to be equally committed to making sure that individuals and families have adequate financial resources to take advantage of these stores.”

Hinde says a statewide nutrition strategy linked to President Barack Obama’s unfolding health care reform law could help bolster the nutritional health of Chicago residents.

Vital Bridges championed a new state law, sponsored by State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) and signed by Governor Pat Quinn on January 25, 2011, that created a state panel to draft a statewide nutrition plan in conjunction with the new federal health law which includes expanded Medicaid benefits.

The Chronic Disease Nutrition and Outcomes Advisory Commission, once the governor makes the appointments, will advise the Illinois Department of Public Health on how to incorporate nutrition as a chronic disease management strategy into state health policy, aiming to avoid costly Medicaid hospitalizations and to measure health care outcomes.

“Medically appropriate nutrition can slow chronic disease progression, avert disability, minimize intensive health care utilization, and decrease costs,” said Hinde.

“If Mayor Emanuel wants to put some weight behind this panel, it will end up benefiting the nutritional health of Chicago residents.”

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