City’s plan to buy shuttered Aldi site another welcome step to eliminate food deserts

Buying groceries shouldn’t be an obstacle course. But it is for millions of Americans, and thousands of Chicagoans — most of them Black — who live in food deserts.

The pandemic hasn’t made things easier. People without a car have had to rely on the CTA, which, at times, scaled back on services. Senior citizens, the disabled and the chronically ill may have hesitated to take public transit altogether.

Easy access to healthy, fresh food is a right. The more grocery stores in place, the less our most vulnerable communities will suffer from food insecurity and ailments that are caused or aggravated by a poor diet, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

So we’re all in with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to spend $700,000 to acquire a shuttered Aldi grocery store site in West Garfield Park. The city’s goal is to bring a similar business there to keep the West Side from becoming a bigger food desert, as the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman reported.

Still, questions and scrutiny about the acquisition authority granted to the mayor by the City Council’s Housing Committee Tuesday are valid. As yet, there’s no concrete plan to replace the former Aldi at 3835 W. Madison St, which was closed last October after three decades.

If the plan is approved by the council, the former Aldi would be acquired using tax increment financing funds, according to the Department of Planning and Development. The city could then seek a request-for-proposals for a new grocery store, and could use the money generated by the Madison-Central TIF district to fix the property up for a potential tenant.

That’s exactly the kind of project TIFs were meant to support.

Aldi cited several factors when it decided to close the store, including declining sales and increased expenses. There were also “security concerns,” council members and other city officials acknowledged. That’s a pressing matter that must be addressed, as no business will want to locate in an area where employees and customers won’t feel safe.

It’s also a matter of money. Spending nearly $1 million on a site that can’t attract a tenant would be huge waste.

Residents in West and East Garfield Park and Austin have just two grocery options now: a Save-A-Lot on South Pulaski Road and another Aldi at Chicago and Kedzie avenues, a little less than two miles from the shuttered store.

But for residents who lack transportation, that’s not much consolation. Small corner stores might be within a reasonable walking distance, but often don’t have fresh produce and meats.

People in wealthier communities typically have an abundance of grocery stores to choose from. People in neighborhoods that are less well-off should have the same.

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