By Hal Dardick
8:08 PM CDT, September 4, 2013
Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought Wednesday to reshape the debate over his efforts to shrink the city's so-called food deserts by announcing plans to open a Whole Foods Market in the impoverished Englewood neighborhood three years from now.
The announcement that the upscale grocer was going to a ZIP code where population is declining and the median household income hovers below $20,000 came one week after a Tribune story showed Emanuel has fallen short of his goals to bring fresh foods and vegetables to low-income neighborhoods with limited access to such staples.
Of 56 locations in designated food deserts where Emanuel announced new grocery stores or upgraded Walgreens stores, 10 were up and running, according to the Tribune report. The mayor also altered the criteria he used to determine which areas are food deserts.
Emanuel said the Tribune report was not a factor in his discussions with Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. The mayor said his administration's "holistic" approach to providing fresh fruits and vegetables includes not only new stores but also rolling produce stands on old buses, city-sponsored farmers markets, upgrading the menu at Chicago Public Schools and allowing more urban farming.
"We have made tremendous gains in dealing with this issue," Emanuel said. "No one snapshot will capture where you are. ... Slowly and surely, we are dealing with it."
But the emphasis Wednesday was on the 18,000-square-foot Whole Foods, slated for a 13-acre site at the northwest corner of Halsted and 63rd streets, even though the store isn't expected to be open until 2016.
Robb made it clear that the mayor had worked hard to court Whole Foods. Discussions about two other sites didn't work out, but the mayor persuaded the Austin, Texas-based company to choose a site near Kennedy-King College. The community college, built in 2007 at a cost of $254 million, houses the Washburne Culinary Institute.
Training opportunities will be offered at the local Whole Foods for students at the culinary school, and most of the workers will be hired locally, Whole Foods officials said.
The city is contemplating providing about $10 million from a special taxing district for land preparation, utilities and environmental cleanup at the site, where 5 acres of retail development will be overseen by DL3 Realty, which is managed by Leon Walker. The company and Walker have donated more than $20,000 to aldermen and other South Side politicians.
Overseeing a mixed-use development on the rest of the site will be the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives led by David Doig, a onetime superintendent of the Chicago Park District.
The community college helped boost the immediate area, which has a Walgreens and an Aldi along Halsted. So the Whole Foods "will be two blocks out of what has been designated a food desert," the mayor acknowledged, saying one can get too hung up on technical details like the definition of a food desert.
Whole Foods has six stores in the city and 12 more in the larger Chicago area, with plans to build in Hyde Park, Lake Forest and Park Ridge. The company is looking at a potential site in Andersonville, said Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th. If that store is built, Whole Foods would seek city financial assistance, he said.
Whole Foods recently opened a store in the Midtown neighborhood of Detroit that serves as the focus of that city's redevelopment efforts, but it has never moved into a low-income area like Englewood, said Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago-based company focused on retail planning.
Robb conceded there will be a learning curve for his company. He said store officials already have started to talk to community members about what is needed at the grocery. That will likely include educational programs and the sale of more house brands, grains and vegetables that fetch lower prices.
"We recognize this is a community we haven't served," Robb said. "And we're recognizing it's important to be affordable and accessible. So we'll make that general commitment." He did not discuss prices.
"Let me just say it's a myth that fresh fruits and vegetables have to be expensive," Robb said. "It's a myth that you can't eat healthy for less money. You may have to be willing to cook."
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.
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