New Law Requires Illinois to Track Food Deserts

Much of the food available at urban corner shops are dried, processed and packaged products, which often have low vitamin and nutritional content compared to fresher produce. (Evlis Batiz / Flickr)Much of the food available at urban corner shops are dried, processed and packaged products, which often have low vitamin and nutritional content compared to fresher produce. (Evlis Batiz / Flickr)

A new state law requires Illinois to track food deserts, or areas lacking fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods.

The law tasks the state’s Department of Public Health with providing an annual report that identifies food deserts within the state and “provides information about health issues associated with food deserts.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent and where at least a third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

State Rep. Sonya HarperState Rep. Sonya Harper Research shows that hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans live in food deserts, though exactly how many is unclear. According to a 2006 report on the public health effects of food deserts in the city, most of those in Chicago were made up entirely of African-American residents. 

The bill, signed into law Sept. 8, was introduced by state Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago.

“Many people throughout my district and across Illinois do not have good access to healthy and nutritious foods, which means they are forced to buy unhealthy foods at local gas stations and convenience stores,” Harper said in a press release. “Municipalities will now have the information needed in order to make sure they are providing residents with quality food options."

The bill passed 114-1 in the House and 55-0 in the Senate. State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, was the only legislator who voted against the bill.

Harper, who resides in her native West Englewood, is a former executive director of Grow Greater Englewood, a group that formed in 2013 to raise awareness about healthy food programs.

“I’ve lived in a food desert for the past 40 years, so it’s an issue that is very personal to me,” Harper said in March. “A lot of people highlight the crime in these areas, but a lot more people are dying from preventable [causes] than from bullets.”

Earlier this year, Harper introduced separate legislation that would allow counties or municipalities to create urban agriculture zones that would receive subsidies to encourage redevelopment and community-improvement projects.

 A 2006 report documented food deserts in Chicago. (Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group / Illinois Department of Agriculture) A 2006 report documented food deserts in Chicago. (Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group / Illinois Department of Agriculture)

The bill was sent to the House’s Rules Committee in April, and no action has been taken since.

“We need to encourage more farmers markets, grocery stores, bakeries and other reputable food retailers and producers to open up shop in and sell their affordable products to people living in food deserts,” Harper said in the press release regarding the food deserts law. “I will continue to fight to make sure we provide healthy and affordable food options for all residents as well as continue to collaborate with others to eliminate food deserts across Illinois.”

Contact Alex Ruppenthal: @arupp aruppenthal@wttw.com | (773) 509-5623


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