I confess. When Michelle Obama was in Chicago a few months ago, and visited Walgreens, I stood in front of the television yelling at her.
Why was Michelle Obama, of all people, in Chicago-city of neighborhoods, home of the nation’s most diverse ethnic population, in the middle of the richest farmland in the world, and leader of the WW2 Victory Gardens movement-standing in some anonymous Walgreens, praising them for importing tomatoes from Chile.
Why was she not walking down Clark Street in Rogers Park, where there are probably 15 locally-owned mercados featuring produce raised locally, and run by families living in the neighborhood. Why was she not on Devon Avenue in the 40th ward, another strip of vibrant local economy? How about 57th Street in her own neighborhood, and home, until the big boxes shut it down, of the famous 57th Street Food Co-op? In Chicago “food desert” doesn’t mean no grocery stores– statutorily it means no big national chain stores. So you get the absurdity of the Albany Park “food desert” where there are at least 6 full service, locally-owned grocery stores within 5 blocks of the main intersection at Lawrence and Kedzie.
The solution to healthy food systems and urban vitality is not another vast parking lot, where private security will boot your car if you so much as step onto the sidewalk to mail a letter, but small, locally owned grocery stores, with sensible inspection protocols, and family management.
After the ’68 riots, Chicago let its local economies die. Where once there were dozens of family businesses keeping the neighborhoods, especially the African-American neighborhoods alive, a decades-long shibboleth has been sold us, teaching us that “business” happens on Wall Street or LaSalle Street, over-regulating small businesses while letting the big guys get away with murder and the family silver, and selling our own livelihoods back to us in Big Boxes stocked with the fruits of foreign slave labor. We’ve been spoon fed the lie that a “small business” is someone with 5 million dollars in annual sales, and 250 employees. That’s not a “small business.” A small business is the corner store (NOT the 7-11, but the old-fashioned Mr. Gower-type of store), or the local nfp animal rescue, or the neighborhood clinic.
Once “business” is what your grandpa did, in his shop around the corner from his house, or downstairs from his apartment. You worked there on the weekends and after school, learning how to run a business, a business that you would take over, when your grandpa and your pa got too old. We’ve let not one, or two, but now three generations of business acumen just die in service to the supposed “efficiency” and low prices of Walmart and its ilk.
Walgreen’s is not the answer to food deserts or to sustainable economies. Walgreen’s is the problem. Bring back the neighborhood pharmacists, tailors, shoe repairs, appliance repairs, and grocers.
A coalition of local food activists agrees with me. They’ve created the Statement of Local Food Economy (pdf). You can sign the statement, too. Also- World Food Day.
Originally posted on Mahlzeit blog in 2010.
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