Dominick's stores closed in October.

Dominick's stores closed in October. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune / December 17, 2013)

The Windy City awoke one October morning to news that a friend with more than 72 locations and 6,600 employees, a friend we'd known since 1918, was leaving. A friend named Dominick's.

During my 6-plus years in Chicago, I have always had a Dominick's a few short blocks away. I was privileged to live in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and Edgewater, and I always made sure there was one close by before I signed a lease.

So when the store next door closed, a situation arose that I had never experienced. I found myself living in a temporary food desert -- sort of.

"Food desert" is a term to describe an area -- usually in low-income communities -- where residents do not have access to affordable, nutritious food. Chicago's problem especially has been a target of national attention, and first lady Michelle Obama has led the charge. Two months prior to the closures, Chicago celebrated a 21 percent decrease in populations affected by food deserts, dropping from 100,000 people affected to a little less than 80,000 since 2011, according to the city.

Though no new data has been published to show the effects of Dominick's recent departure, it's safe to assume that the loss of 72 grocery stores probably ended that celebration. Sorry, Mayor Emanuel.

During my first few months of post-Dominick's living, I tried out the whole trekking-to-another-neighborhood-to-get-groceries-after-work thing. The first few trips to a Jewel about a mile south were tolerable, but as a record-breaking winter closed in around us, I quickly gave up hauling bags on the CTA.

The next step on this slippery slope to bad nutrition: take-out food. I would order Thai one night and pick up Chipotle the next. Dollar burger night here and 25-cent wing night there. And then Chipotle again. Soon, not only did my monthly food budget explode, but my diet was filled with foods I usually would reserve for a Sunday hangover.

One day I was complaining to a friend about my food woes and asked how she was dealing, especially with two young children to feed. She laughed and said, "Oh, I just order mine through Instacart. You must try it. They even deliver booze." Groceries + booze + delivery = me signing up faster than you can say cabernet sauvignon.

Since subscribing to Instacart, which lets me order from an array of stores through the simple magic of its app and website, I don't even miss my old Dominick's. If anything, it has made me realize how little I enjoyed my grocery shopping routine.

And probably more importantly, it made me start to think more about food deserts and how to fix them. In the past, the most obvious option has been to just build more grocery stores, which takes time and creates more concrete in communities that need green space.

Instead of more stores, maybe it's time to return to the days of the milk man. But this time, he doesn't just bring milk.

 

Zach Stafford is a RedEye special contributor.