Hunger is an issue that plagues many low-income people throughout Chicago.  Without an appropriate amount and variety of food, we lack the essential nutrients needed to stay healthy.  But what if you were unable to buy fresh fruits and vegetables?  What happens when it is just too hard to get these fresh, nutritious foods?
A food desert is an area with little or no access to full-service grocery stores that sell the food needed to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.  In these food deserts, most people have to travel twice as far to get to a full-service grocery store as they have to travel to get to a fast food restaurant or convenience store.  Without their own method of transportation, most people will shop at the food source closest to their home, despite their preferences or dietary restrictions.  It is estimated that over 600,000 Chicagoans live in areas with an imbalance of food choices.[1]

In 2006, the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group submitted a report on the impact of Food Deserts on Chicago neighborhoods and found that in the western area of Chicago alone, seven neighborhoods were food deserts.  Fast food restaurants and convenience stores are often a much closer alternative in these areas, and this can affect the overall health and wellness of a community.   Their research has shown that the imbalance of access to healthy foods can also lead to higher rates of obesity and hypertension and also increases the likelihood of premature death from diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular complications.  The prevalence of these chronic disorders can have a huge impact on a community – it directly affects the quality, productivity, and length of life and can also indirectly affect health care costs, school test scores, and the area’s economic strength. [2]

To address this, Chicago Cares currently runs hunger programming with three different organizations in West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, and West Town – all of which are neighborhoods identified as food deserts.  One of these programs is a healthy cooking class with residents at Open Door Shelter, a temporary shelter for young adults who may have been exposed to difficult life circumstances.  Chicago Cares volunteers focus on teaching these young adults to use healthy alternatives while cooking meals they would want to eat.
In the future, Chicago Cares hopes to further tackle hunger by expanding programs in the critical neighborhoods highlighted in the western and southern areas of Chicago.  For more information about volunteering at hunger programs on the west side of Chicago, please contact Joyce Cruz at jcruz@chicagocares.org or 312-780-0800 ext. 141.  

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