In Our Own Backyard: Food deserts start urban blight

Kay Bolden | 4/20/2017, 9:16 a.m.
In Our Own Backyard is a Times Weekly column covering environmental justice and climate change, and how these issues impact ...

In Our Own Backyard is a Times Weekly column covering environmental justice and climate change, and how these issues impact our families every day. If you think oil spills, contaminated soil and toxic water pipes don’t really affect you – we want you to think again. It’s happening right here, right now, in our own backyard.

No Food, No Justice

With the closing of Certified Warehouse Foods, the food and retail “desert” on the southeast side of Joliet is nearly complete. Our community retains dollar stores, liquor stores, overpriced gas and unhealthy fast food – but no economic plan that will actually drive growth and opportunity.

Ironically, the lack of food in our neighborhood is not only proof that the current strategies have failed; it can also be the catalyst we need to create change.

What can we do?

• Invest and support urban agriculture. Build a local, community-owned food system that reflects and responds to the people it serves. Initiate and reinforce community-led efforts to create a sustainable food system.

• Recognize the economic power we already have and spend our dollars wisely. Buy neighborhood-grown produce and support neighborhood-owned businesses.

• Grow community leaders as well as food. Reclaim our family traditions of cooking together, eating together and sharing with our neighbors.

• Create opportunities for people to get involved, learn new skills and communicate effectively with each other, and with prospective investors.

• Become our own agents of change. No one will invest in our community if we don’t do it ourselves first.

In the past, discriminatory practices and policies confined people of color to certain neighborhoods, producing “bubbles” of high-poverty areas. The loss of manufacturing jobs and rising unemployment helped bolster this isolation. Historically, these areas were also systematically starved of resources and investments communities need to thrive, like financing for homeownership, business investment, public transportation and safe recreation. Families who could afford to leave did so, accelerating disinvestment.

What’s happening on the southeast side now is a microcosm of urban distress all over the country: low-wage jobs, lack of investment, crumbling support systems and infrastructure – and a lack of food.

Neighborhoods play a significant role in the development of our children. The availability of good-quality food, access to health care, good schools, reliable child care and after school recreation, exposure to crime and violence – these things shape our children’s future, and their ability to thrive in a competitive world.

According to a 2015 study by the Urban Opportunity Agenda, poverty reduction itself has the potential to be an economic engine. Without reducing poverty, economic growth spurts in the overall society will result in an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There is a high price to pay for this gap. We pay in increased health care costs, in prisons, and in declining global influence.

We must commit our ingenuity and our resources to using food as a vehicle for social change. Bringing people together around food – a universal necessity – is a way to build community, and to create lasting social, racial and economic justice.

Kay Bolden is a Times Weekly columnist, an author, blogger, youth advocate, community activist and urban farmer on Joliet’s southeast side. She’d love to hear your thoughts on sustainable living, economic justice, and how we can all live together on the only planet we’ve got. Follow her on Twitter @KayBolden or drop her a line at Kay@KayBolden.com