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Healthy New Food Carts

One step closer to eliminating food deserts By Bechara Choucair, MD

In medical school, during residency, and in my clinical practice, I spent a lot of time with my patients talking about changing individual behavior as a key element to deal with obesity. In my role at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), I spend a lot more time focusing on the adoption of the right policies, systems and environmental changes to combat obesity in our City. We need both approaches to make a difference. As a City, we have made the elimination of food deserts and reducing the number of people living without access to fresh and healthy food a priority in Healthy Chicago, our city’s public health agenda. Nearly 15% of Chicagoans, about 400,000 people—still lack convenient access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. Some neighborhoods have no grocery stores, while others are served by small corner stores that carry little or no produce, offering snack foods, sugary beverages, liquor and tobacco.

I often hear from clinicians that as they discuss healthy eating with their diabetic or overweight patients, access to healthy food comes up as a significant barrier to healthy living.

At CDPH, we are well aware of the impact that access to healthy foods can have on persons who live in communities with low food access. This is why rolling out the new healthy food carts is a public health achievement for Chicago.

This past June, the Chicago City Council approved a new ordinance that allows healthy food carts to operate across the City, providing new avenues for small business development while working to increase access to healthy fresh food throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods. The new policy is strategically designed to place produce stands where our city needs them the most, in food deserts.

Currently, there are 15 healthy food carts in various Chicago neighborhoods. Over 50% of these carts are in areas designated as food deserts, ensuring that residents in these areas have increased access to healthy food. We are also seeing healthy food carts in busy areas such as main intersections with high foot traffic and public transportation sites, specifically within food deserts. In the first two years, we expect to see up to 50 carts throughout Chicago, resulting in the shrinkage of 2.5 square miles of food deserts in Chicago. Northwestern University is conducting an evaluation of these carts over the next two years to determine the economic and health benefits to Chicagoans.

This is another opportunity for our City to address a growing health concern, not only in Chicago but across many American cities experiencing high rates of obesity. In Chicago 67% of adults are either overweight or obese. As you know, adolescents are now being diagnosed with high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, which until recently was seen primarily in older adults. Researchers anticipate this could be the first generation with a lower life expectancy than its parents.

We know that people who eat produce three times a day or more are 42% less likely to die of stroke and 24% less likely to die of heart disease than those who eat them less than once a day. We know that 70% of Chicagoans, both adults and youth, are failing in this area and not eating the daily recommended servings of produce. For many, this is not an issue of preference, but rather one of access. This is why the healthy food carts are an important strategy in our toolbox for a healthier living. That toolbox also includes strategies for working with corner stores to make fresh fruit and vegetables available and working with mainstream grocers to open stores in communities with low food access

I am very excited about the progress we are making in addressing food deserts. If you would like to learn more, please check our website at www.cityofchicago.org/health or follow us on Twitter (@ChiPublicHealth). As always, I am happy to respond to any emails at Choucair@cityofchicago.org.

Dr. Choucair is commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

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