Securing Food in Chicagoland

23.5 million Americans have limited access to healthy food options.

PHOTOGRAPHER: Emily Schiffer


Conversation with Emily Schiffer, Orrin Williams, and Emmanuel Pratt

On August 27, 2011, Emily spoke to Orrin Williams, Executive Director of The Center for Urban Transformation in Chicago, Illinois, and Emmanuel Pratt, Executive Director of The Sweet Water Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Director of the Aquaponics Program at Chicago State University.

Orrin and Emmanuel assisted Emily in shaping her understanding of food-insecurity, urban blight, and the history of racial segregation in Chicago while working on her project. Currently, she is collaborating with Orrin Williams and the Center for Urban Transformation, along with other community members and artists, on building a series of large-scale public installation pieces to bring community awareness and dialogue on the issue of food-insecurity in the South Side of Chicago.
Emily Schiffer: So let's start with you Orrin. Can you describe the food security situation in Chicago's South Side neighborhood?

Orrin Williams: Well, from my perspective it's really about how historically, people of African descent have been "food-insecure" since our arrival in the western hemisphere. Whether it was the plantation era, the Jim Crow era, or after the migrations, food access or food security has never been optimal. Now the discussion has really been ramped up with the notion of the 'food desert' after Mari Gallagher's research on food deserts in Chicago, so there are more policy considerations and more discussions about the issue. That said, we are concerned that the policy initiatives being proposed in the mainstream are inadequate and irrelevant to local economic development or community development. Basically, the policy initiatives mean bringing chain corporate entities into the community, which is just an extractive way of mining for the community's money. Just by bringing in grocery stores doesn't get to the issue surrounding public health. In fact, one can witness quite easily what happens when people go shopping, if they have no idea about what they should buy, how to cook, or don't have basic information about nutrition. Often times we see people spend $300 and not have any fresh produce in their carts. So it's much deeper and much more complex than the public can imagine.

Schiffer: So, I'm actually trying to avoid the term 'food desert' in my project because I believe it is a limiting way to envision the problems at hand. Can you go into more detail about the complexities of the situation?

Williams: Well, I don't like the term 'food deserts' myself because the notion of a food desert doesn't look at the complexities surrounding what people eat, how they eat, and how food cultures were created. In the case of people of African descent in this country, the cultural piece around food is racial and it comes straight out of slavery and the plantation.

For example, there is something called a "hoe cake." Sometimes people make fun of it and think it's a joke, but a hoe cake exists because people didn't have implements to cook with and they used a blade of a hoe to cook the corn meal cake. A lot of the food preparation around so-called "soul food" is based around the fact that people only had one pot; so you would put the meat, beans, greens, or whatever the case may be, in one pot. And for a lot of people that actually became a cultural piece around African-American food ways.

Emmanuel Pratt: Also tied into that are the investment choices. These neighborhoods that have been designated as "food deserts" actually have a lot of local grocery stores and businesses that were disinvested over the years, reinforcing its decline. The term "blight" is something that's particularly got me. I find it ironic because blight comes from the study of plants and paleontology and it's the cancer of a plant that makes it unable to sustain life. This term "blight" has been used to create ecologies of absence in areas that actually have local businesses.

Williams: In reference to that, one of those communities would be Englewood where we do a lot of work and where I grew up. There was a vibrant economy in that community and we never had to leave that community to buy anything that one typically needs. And then there was a period of time during the "malling" of America that led city planners to decide that the vibrant economy that existed at 63rd and Halsted was no longer going to be of essence to how communities function and that people wanted to go to malls. What they tried to create was a community-centered mall by closing off streets and creating parking, forcing people to walk through the stores. Thus what they did, in essence, was create an opportunity for that shopping district at 63rd and Halsted to go out of business. And at a certain point in history, while I was growing up, the Englewood community at 63rd –Halsted and that shopping in and around that area, was the second-highest level of economic activity in the state of Illinois, only behind Downtown. So now, back to Emmanuel's point, those kinds of opportunities have been essentially stripped away.

Schiffer: And how does that correlate with the development of housing projects, and are they linked at all in terms of the timeline?

Pratt: From the '30s up until the '50s, there was an actual design for public housing developments. They were usually low-level, one to two-level, sturdy, strong, reinforced concrete, or what-have-you. But once we started shifting the growth to the suburbs, inner-city decay and the fear of the inner-city increased. There was a verticalization in the structures, and more poor, black, low-income, and minorities were allocated into one set area. So for example the Robert Taylor public housing development is a four mile-long stretch of housing.

Williams: Well there are several public housing developments that are this large.

Pratt: Yes, several of them. And over time, they were kind of forgotten about; I mean part of this is all talked about in Chicago's history. But "blight" has been the term that justified the demolition of most of the housing. So "they're blighted properties, which can no longer sustain economic viability," "there's too much crime," "it's overcrowded" or even "under-populated" somehow. Any justification will do to demolish these areas, and in this process the schools close, the grocery stores close, local businesses close, and then you're left with these mass pockets of land that are just empty and vacant for years.

Williams: Yeah and I mean Emmanuel's being nice about it. In Chicago, it really was about maintaining poor black populations in a certain order. It was designed to make sure the notion of public housing was not spread across the city and would not interfere with the segregated nature of the city of Chicago.

Schiffer: Can you talk more about the segregated nature of the city, about isolation, and the effect of the isolation that comes with segregation in Chicago.

Williams: Chicago is known as one of the most segregated cities in the United States. No house exists on the block that I grew up on. Some of the vacant lots that we played ball on fifty years ago are still vacant. And of course the vacancy rate has increased exponentially since then. The issue is the lack of any kind of initiative that aims to empower black folks economically. I mean, even during the civil rights era, there were many tracks involved in that. The one that got the most press was this notion of integration (which I have no problem with, except of course that only black folks were supposed to integrate) and it maintained the historical lack of access to financial resources. I mean, you're talking about redlining communities; you're talking about communities where people work at night; you know, mortgages where there's been a predatory lending system in place virtually since black folks began coming to the north and into Chicago; and you're still talking about lack of access to any kind of financial loans and stocks.

We know that many folks of African descent who applied for mortgages with proper qualifications for regular mortgages that were given predatory lending packages; and we know that black folk own very little wealth but most of the wealth they did own was tied up in real estate. We watched the demise of a people's wealth based upon how the housing market had been revalued. So I mean, nothing has changed historically; you can't quibble with the fact that folks of African descent were brought here as a way to make money, as a source of labor; and ultimately, according to a whole bunch of folks including my own analysis, they comprise the backbone of the capitalist system in this country without ever being able to benefit from it. And again, during the civil rights era, the folks that controlled the agenda in terms of black folk opted for "jobs." "Jobs" are not economic justice, "jobs" are not social justice, and there's something important to be taken away from that.

Schiffer: Can you define health and what health entails beyond just food?

Pratt: Health is really mind-body-spirit education. I mean what else would health be?! It's the bigger picture, it's much more holistic. We spent three weeks with IBM for Smarter Cities for a Smarter Planet, and our theme was "Smarter Cities Feeding Themselves" and after three weeks they said "wow, it's much bigger than just food." It's about having exposure to a lot of opportunities that typically people are not exposed to; it's about having solid experiential education that actually makes people think innovatively and creatively and having people to come together around those innovations; and ultimately it is about food we eat. Like I said, it's a much more holistic approach.


June 28, 2012

Emily Schiffer

MotherJones, There Grows the Neighborhood

MotherJones published in print images from Emily Schiffer’s Securing Food in Chicagoland in their July/August 2012 issue.

But considering Emily Schiffer’s photos, I was reminded of Mother Teresa’s visit to a housing project on Chicago’s West Side in the mid-1980s. What rattled her was not the poverty of the pocket-book. She’d seen worse in India. Rather, it was what she called ‘the poverty of the spirit.’”

 The article will be online in July. We will keep you posted!

April 17, 2012

Emily Schiffer

Once Magazine


Back to the Garden: Tilling the Food Deserts of Chicago’s South Side, Once Magazine: Issue 7

Story by Emily Schiffer, and Tasha Flournoy

On Chicago’s West and South Sides, it can be easier to get a meal from a fast food restaurant than from a grocery store. Some residents travel twice as far, on average, to reach a grocery store than to reach a fast food restaurant. Corner stores are many families’ primary source of food and, until recently, few supplied affordable, healthy alternatives to processed food. For households without cars, travelling a mile or more to buy fresh food is a significant barrier.  

In the past five years, access to food in Chicago has started to change. Research, activism, and city policy have improved commercial food access and increasingly enabled locally-operated urban farms and gardens to supply their own neighborhoods. On Chicago’s South Side—composed of predominantly African American neighborhoods with the city’s highest concentration of food deserts—two sustainable gardens grow on what was previously a vacant lot. The gardens belong to the Remake the World Veterans Center (RTW) in the Washington Park neighborhood—across the street from the park that was a proposed site for the failed 2016 Olympic bid. Broken concrete roads and vacant lots hug corner stores named “Fish & Chicken” and “Finest Food Basket.” U.S. Military flags may wrap around the RTW’s front gates but all civilians looking for a hot meal are welcome.  

February 1, 2012

Emily Schiffer

See Potential Featured on Blog Tracking Art

Emily Schiffer’s project SEE POTENTIAL was featured on blog Tracking Art.

January 18, 2012

Emily Schiffer

Vision Project, Gallery Showcase

Emily Schiffer was featured in the Vision Project Gallery Showcase. 

The goal of Vision Project is to showcase the work of talented photographers around the world. 

January 18, 2012

Emily Schiffer

Half King Discussion

Emily Schiffer, EF photographer, Whitney Johnson, New Yorker Director of Photography, and Joseph Rodriguez, photographer, discussed How Photography Can Envision Change. 

In light of Schiffer’s recent Kickstarter campaign for SEE POTENTIAL, a project that uses photography to pre-visualize a better future in South Side, Chicago, Schiffer and Johnson spoke about how projects like SEE POTENTIAL can illuminate complicated issues and how photography can help transform communities. The Half King Photography Series hosted the discussion on Tuesday, January 17, 2012. 

SEE POTENTIAL aims to transform blighted buildings and empty lots in Chicago’s South Side into community centers and urban gardens. The project involves collaborations among photographers, artists, and local organizations to harness the impact of photographs, and use innovative technology to engage local community voices. 

Today is the last day of Emily’s Kickstarter campaign, so don’t be shy to show your support for SEE POTENTIAL

December 21, 2011

Emily Schiffer

Benevolent Media

Emily Schiffer’s Kickstarter project, See Potential, was featured on Benevolent Media. To learn more about See Potential please visit Schiffer’s Kickstarter: 

December 12, 2011

Emily Schiffer

Time LightBox

Emily Schiffer’s EF project, Securing Food in Chicagoland, was featured on the Time LightBox on December 12, 2011. Her project focuses Chicago's food security and the urban farming movement. The project can viewed here.

December 7, 2011


December 6, 2011

Emily Schiffer will launch her KickStarter tomorrow. 

Here’s a quick preview of the prototypes for the proposed visual campaign in South Side, Chicago. Check in tomorrow for more news and the official launch!

September 7, 2011

Angkor Photo Festival

2011, 7th Annual Photo Festival

Saiful Huq Omi, Yuri Kozyrev, Emily Schiffer, Zalmai, and Shehab Uddin featured in South Asian photo festival.

June 27, 2011
From the Field: EF2011’s Emily Schiffer (Part III)

Emily Schiffer sent us updates from her project in Chicago, where she is documenting the health impact of food deserts and the burgeoning organic urban farming movement, which provides an increasing number of healthy food options to at-risk communities.

CAPTION: Section of the unrefrigerated soda selection, corner store,  Auburn Gresham,  South Side, Chicago, 2011.

June 25, 2011
From the Field: EF2011’s Emily Schiffer (Part II)

Emily Schiffer sent us updates from her project in Chicago, where she is documenting the health impact of food deserts and the burgeoning organic urban farming movement, which provides an increasing number of healthy food options to at-risk communities.

CAPTION: After harvesting lettuce, interns at Growing Home Inc prepare the field for new seedlings. Growing home is a non-profit organization that provides job training through organic agriculture. It is a stepping stone program that serves people with a variety of backgrounds, including those who were formerly incarcerated, or recovering from substance abuse. Chicago, 2011.

June 24, 2011
From the Field: EF2011’s Emily Schiffer (Part I)

Emily Schiffer sent us updates from her project in Chicago, where she is documenting the health impact of food deserts and the burgeoning organic urban farming movement, which provides an increasing number of healthy food options to at-risk communities.

CAPTION: A girl and her brother buy food at the corner store, whose shelves are stocked with a wide variety of chips, candy, and soda. Like many similar establishments, there is no unprocessed or natural food available. Chicago, 2011

Emily’s EF edit will be available on our website later this summer — in the meantime, check out our other projects HERE and follow our facebook page HERE


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