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Chicago studies possibility of city-owned grocery store

Partnership with nonprofit could place the proposed supermarket in an underserved area following several store closings

The city of Chicago said it is partnering with a national nonprofit organization to explore the feasibility of opening a city-owned grocery store in an underserved area of Chicago.

Chicago would be the first major U.S. city to open a municipally owned grocery store to address food inequity, according to a statement from the office of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson. 

“All Chicagoans deserve to live near convenient, affordable, healthy grocery options,” Johnson said. “We know access to grocery stores is already a challenge for many residents, especially on the South and West Sides.”

To study the feasibility of the project, the city is working with the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit founded in 2016 to champion the concept of direct cash payments to build economic power among the poor. Last year the organization celebrated the creation of more than 100 guaranteed income pilot projects around the country.

“The city of Chicago is reimagining the role government can play in our lives by exploring a public option for grocery stores via a municipally owned grocery store and market,” said Ameya Pawar, senior advisor at the Economic Security Project.

He likened the effort to a municipal library or a U.S. Post Office.

“A city-owned grocery store in the South or West Side of Chicago would be a viable way to restore access to healthy food in areas that have suffered from historic and systemic disinvestment,” said Pawar.

At least six grocery stores have closed on the South and West sides of Chicago during the past two years, according to the mayor’s office. A recent report in Crain’s Chicago Business lists three Walmart locations, two Target stores and a Whole Foods Market that have all closed on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 63.5% of residents in West Englewood and 52% of residents in East Garfield Park live more than half a mile from their nearest grocery store, for example, the mayor’s office said, noting that these food deserts impact Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately.

“Exploring innovative initiatives to support food retail is part of the Johnson administration’s broader commitment to correcting systems and practices that have created these inequities,” the mayor’s office said.

Although the mayor’s office said Chicago would become the first major city to operate a government-owned grocery store, other smaller municipalities have done so. They include Baldwin, Fla., which has operated the Baldwin Market since 2019, and Erie, Kan., which acquired Stub’s Market in 2021 and now operates it as Erie Market. In many cases, the small, independent grocery stores that had served these towns for years have gone out of business amid competition from large chain stores in other nearby towns.

In addition to providing access to food, grocery stores also serve as anchors in communities by employing local residents and acting as catalysts for other businesses, the Chicago mayor’s office said. They also help capture local spending from residents who would otherwise have to leave the area.

“The strides being made in the realm of food justice are now poised for a significant advancement towards innovative solutions,” said Anton Seals Jr., lead steward of Grow Greater Englewood and inaugural member of Chicago’s Food Equity Council, which was formed in 2020 to address food insecurity in the city. “This opportunity marks a pivotal moment to forge pathways for food accessibility, with the city recognizing its role as a key partner in addressing market shortcomings.”

The mayor’s office said the city will pursue “values-aligned funding opportunities,” including those made possible by the newly created Illinois Grocery Initiative, which commits $20 million for grants and technical assistance for grocery stores throughout Illinois.

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