Chicago + South Side = Food Desert

By El Che

At 12 years old, I can remember smelling my mother’s cooking all the way in the back yard. I can’t even remember what I was doing at the time, but I could never forget that aroma. On that particular evening, she called me in to make a store run for her. She asked for a can of tomato paste and some onion powder. Then, she handed me $5.00 to walk to the “corner store.” Most neighborhoods on the south side seemed to have those corner stores. As I arrived at the store, it wasn’t hard to find the two ingredients. There were only about five seasonings in all to choose from, as well as a limited amount of canned goods. At the time, our local store had three arcade games, a monstrous candy rack and two aisles of the most commonly used food items – bread, milk, cereal, etc., all next to laundry detergent and household cleaning products.

 Now that I’m an adult and have to provide some of these same ingredients for the table my children eat at, I realize that although the corner store was all we had, it was not the best we could’ve had. The near outdated eggs, the lack of fresh meats, fruits and vegetables and the overall limited choice is what I now know leads to many of the health conditions our community suffers from: high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease. Despite the criticism, I also realize those stores were there to fill a void and without them we had a literal food desert. Over the years, many of them have closed their doors for various reasons. Many inner city families have found themselves buying some of these same food items from the local gas station, which charge exorbitant amounts of money for small items.

 Finally, the South Side has been given an opportunity to alleviate both our need for jobs and to provide economic opportunity. Additionally, this opportunity also addresses our need for fresh produce at affordable prices. I realize now that my mother asked for tomato paste and onion powder because the corner store didn’t have real tomatoes or onions. No family in any community should suffer from that same lack of choice. There is a proposal to create a Walmart on 83rd and Chatham, that will provide anywhere between 300 – 500 jobs at a living wage of about $12.00 per hour. The community has come out in overwhelming support for Walmart despite the few aldermen and certain union groups who have come out in opposition. Ironically, some of the people in opposition don’t even live in the community, but are attempting to dictate its agenda. As an artist, an activist, and a south side resident, let me put it plainly. If you can’t come in and provide living wage jobs and fresh affordable produce, then how can you say anyone else can’t? Furthermore, it is unfair for people who have jobs to prevent the scores of unemployed from obtaining their own. This is our community, and it should our choice. The people have spoken.

Filed in: Uncategorized • Wednesday, July 29th, 2009


Fantastic man, I wholly support this as well. Keep doing what you do ‘Fest, and your message is strong, sound, and heard nationally by those who even remotely follow the underground! +1

You are really not for the people if you are supporting Walmart. They don’t provide living wages. Employees are a commodity and only looked at as a number. I can’t believe you have bought into the hype of Walmart. What about small business in the neighborhood?

The dynamics of my community and your community are obviously different. There are not many small businesses that employ people with any kind of living wage around 83rd & Chatham on the South Side of Chicago. Any business, including large corporations only succeed as far as the communities they serve. On the South Side there is a virtual food desert and the grocery stores that do exist gauge the people. These Walmart jobs allow people to earn living wages with the average being $12 per hour. Don’t get me twisted, I’m not fighting for a corporation, I’m fighting for that brother that just got released from prison with very little skills to have an opportunity to work in his community. 300 – 1,000 jobs is something we don’t have the luxury to be against. Black and brown Chicago suffers from 20% unemployment. That is not a recession that is a depression. I am not on the side of corporate interests, I am on the side of community interests which if you check the facts, overwhelmingly supports Walmart.

This is a worldwide problem. Supermarket chains just don’t open in poor neighbourhoods, regardless of demand. When doing site suitability analysis for new store, poor neighbourhoods or ones that come with a ‘negative’ demographic representation are cut. I hope you do get it, for the sake of jobs. Just because it’s a corporation doesn’t make it evil by default even if they do pay peanuts – some people would gladly work for those peanuts given the alternative.

I was just having a discussion with a friend of mine about when we were growing up and how often we got sick off of the food we ate that we bought out of corner stores and liquor stores. The box of Jiffy mix that had the black bugs in it. Crushed boxes of cereal and bent out of shape cans of sardines and vegetables. We had to do what we can and thank God that we made it this far despite how messed up things may seem today. My family still has to hit the food pantry every once in a while an thank God that the food they get from there is fresh and undamaged. Been seeing a lot of Food 4 Less and Pete’s Markets popping up everywhere, too.

I applaud your zeal. I’m not from Chatham neighborhood; so I will not pretend to have the answer for the neighborhood. Making a deal with Wal-mart is Faustian contract. Just this week they fired someone for asking to take medical leave to care for her sick husband and 4 year old child. In other communities they close the store after a short period and open in a nearby community; they have often held the land vacant to not allow competitors to enter the market. People need jobs but at what cost?


By Greg Garbutt on April 30th, 2012 at 9:55 am

I moved into a safe haven yesterday 4/29, my address is 7817 S. Bishop, if I’m out of your zone or area for food services, can you provide a one time food service to me. I start a new job this week and need to stay healthy and focused for this week. Thank You. Greg Garbutt


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Che Smith is a revolutionary artist, writer, and activist. Popularly known as Rhymefest, the South Side Chicago native has been a trailblazer in music, television, and politics.