Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday - Wal-Mart in the Food Desert

The City of Chicago's Zoning Committee recently approved a new Wal-Mart in the Pullman neighborhood - one of the largest underserved areas of the food desert in Chicago.  Wal-Mart, famous for bringing its stores to underserved rural areas, has been trying to enter the urban food desert in Chicago for the past six years, but has been stymied by labor organizers trying to ensure a living wage for Chicago employees.

Wal-Mart has specifically expressed a commitment to removing food deserts from American cities, but it remains a controversial business.  It has been accused of unfair labor practices, unfair competition, of creating a monopsony, and of using foreign product sources with questionable labor policies and products.

That being said, this store presents an unprecedented opportunity for residents of Chicago's largest food desert.  Wal-Mart not only carries a full line of groceries and produce, but offers organics as well.  Mari Gallagher, a food desert researcher, discussed the possible impact of the first Wal-Mart supercenter in the Chatham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago:  grocery stores and retailers tend to agglomerate, or cluster together, around a stable, central hub.  Currently, the food desert in Chicago is experiencing negative agglomeration - food stores are leaving the area.  In her opinion, a Wal-Mart supercenter may reverse this trend, and provide a productive environment for a wide variety of retail grocers to return to the food desert.

Although Chatham itself is outside the areas on the food desert map (though it is surrounded by a food desert,) the Wal-Mart currently under consideration would place a grocery store directly inside one of the largest food desert areas: Pullman is surrounded by South Deering, Roseland, Burnside and Riverdale, all communities within the boundaries of the food desert.  Bringing a grocer to this area has been a priority for some time.  However, Wal-Mart does not plan to stop at Pullman, but has identified 21 additional sites where it will build stores, many of them in other underserved areas.

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