CHICAGO, Ill. — In many communities across the country, corner stores or small convenience stores are a main source of food, and sometimes, these stores don’t provide healthy options. In Chicago, there is a growing effort to change the narrative about neighborhoods viewed as food swamps or food deserts.
For Dera Purnell, a food pantry in her Chicago neighborhood offers refuge from a difficult reality.
“I have my walker for my cane and I’m afraid to go out because people in my situation, they’re easy to take advantage of me when I’m by myself,” said Purnell.
The pantry she visits is in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. It is run by IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
“Englewood, if you’re looking at food insecurity it’s almost 50%,” said Ahmad Jitan of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
The pantry run by IMAN provides plenty of healthy food, but step outside, and Jitan said that’s not the case. A store that most wouldn’t consider a grocery store is the main source of food for many.
“The corner store is a cultural staple,” said Jitan.
With few traditional grocery stores close by, Jitan said many rely on these small stores for food.
“It’s where you go for a quick snack, where you might go for a pop or some cigarettes,” said Jitan.
Neighborhoods like this one are considered food deserts because of their lack of access to traditional grocery stores and the fresh food they can provide.
A University of Texas-San Antonio study found people who live in communities like this are at a higher risk for health issues like obesity.
“You don’t have developers putting things in the community that will help to develop people in a positive way. All it does is tear them down,” said Abdurraheem Merritt of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
But, IMAN’s Corner Store Campaign aims to fight against that statistic. Fifty stores have signed on to work with people like Jitan in having a cleaner appearance on the outside and healthier items inside.
“Your business will succeed if you invest in the community, and not just that you’ll see that the economy of this whole neighborhood will improve if you can envision a different kind of store,” said Jitan.
Nationwide, several communities, including Denver, Detroit, and Cleveland have programs that work with corner stores to offer healthier items.
To Jitan, the work goes beyond food.
“So, there is also an element of the racial tensions that play out in these corner stores, operating in mostly Black or Latino neighborhoods with immigrants from these other countries. Many of these stores are often run by an immigrant from countries like Palestine, which is where I’m from, Jordan, Yemen, or counties in South Asia,” explained Jitan. “The concern is I’m coming to this country. I want to feed my kids and send some money back home. I know what sells. And it does sell, but you’re missing out on a lot of the community that wants other things.”
In February, IMAN will open a fresh market.
"As the only institution offering food, you really have the capability to limit or expand the nutritional intake of the people who shop at the store,” said Darren Jeters of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
The fresh market is the first step in helping this community, but in Chicago and across the country, much work lies ahead.
“There’s a lot that’s missing in terms of people understanding each other’s stories and the power that happens when you build relationships for other people’s stories you start to understand how we can build together,” said Jitan.
This community group knows it will take everyone buying in to improve the complex relationship between food and health in the inner city, but they’re ready to put in the work to see their community grow.