Chicago Adds a New Stop to the Redline: Food Deserts

Sammie Shields on June 5, 2020

Recently, I have seen a plethora of people, especially brown and black people, sharing tweets that rebuke the racist and classist explanation white people have given to explain the disproportionate deaths that black people have been experiencing from COVID-19. 70% of the deaths in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the nation. 81% in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the nation. Cities where black people are 30% and 40% of the population, respectively. 

Based on the explanations I have seen from some of the thousands of Twitter and Instagram’s white self-proclaimed economists with specialties in epidemiology, sociology, and urban development, black people are dying more because black people like soul food and Kool-Aid, and we never go running, basically.

This was a new discovery for me, given that my family has always been active and gave up fried food, red meat, and sugary drinks years ago. However, my grandparents’ hypertension, high cholesterol, and various other health conditions remain, my parents and I are still genetically predisposed to these diseases must monitor our health.

For people that don’t understand the connection between food deserts and predisposition to the health conditions that make COVID-19 more fatal, I intend to provide context. My hope is to illustrate the deadly reality of the disparity.

If you drove through my neighborhood, you would see the paint-chipped phrase “Food and Groceries” slathered along the top of numerous corner stores that sit and deteriorate. You would see black residents, predominantly. You would see an overwhelming presence of vacant lots and a lack of local businesses. And you would not see a grocery store.

I recognize this may portray a caricature common in local media. However, without a sociologically literate analysis of these issues, this is what you would see. Simply put.  

North Lawndale is on Chicago’s Westside, and is one of the many neighborhoods in Chicago with more than 40 corner stores/candy stores that often serve as the liquor and groceries stores for these areas. Amongst this abundance of corner stores existed one grocery store, Save-A-Lot. It was recently replaced by a Dollar General, not a grocery store.

Save-A-Lot’s operating hours were typically from about 9am-5pm and on a good day maybe 7pm. It typically opened after and closed before most, if not all, the corner stores in the area. In this Save-A-Lot, fruit and vegetables shared a small produce section of the store, which was also lined with hundreds of preservative-filled pastries and snacks.

This lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables within a neighborhood, as shown in the Save-A-Lot, is what characterizes a “food desert.” Access in this scenario is connected to the probability, all things considered (i.e. income, volume of stores, operating hours, average proximity, etc.) that one would be able to purchase these items in their community. North Lawndale, along with several other black and brown Chicago neighborhoods, falls into this category. And it did not do so spontaneously.

Multiple studies conducted by sociologists, economists, and governments have verified the influence of poverty within the history and existence of food deserts, supporting these narratives with proven statistical correlation. The Illinois governor recently established the Illinois Advisory Committee to the US on Civil Rights to specifically track food deserts across the state and their impacts on communities. This is a statement from Illinois Advisory Committee’s report, “Food Deserts in Chicago":

A food desert is the antithesis of progress, and the costs associated with living within one will be borne directly by those residents through their quality and length of life, and indirectly by the health care industry, by employers, by government agencies, and by others who take of the financial burden of pre-death treatments.

When you are poor you pay for being impoverished more than once. If it does not involve choice regarding the  affordability of the medical care needed, then people will pay for the availability, or lack thereof, of healthful options in their communities.

“Food deserts” disproportionately affect low-income, black/brown communities across Chicago. If you were to use the “Mapping Inequality” resource, check the Chicago Health Atlas, or read the article by Dr. Daniel Block, et al which is cited below, you would see that the same communities that had homes violently stripped from their residents due to a racist housing system are the communities with food deserts, general income inequality, and a plethora of other class- and race-based issues. 

This racist housing practice occurred in major cities across the country, such as Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. It was called redlining. It earned the name because the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) tasked local Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) with developing a map of major cities that assessed risk and quality of housing of various neighborhoods. 

When white prospective homeowners would go to the bank to apply for home loans, they would be shown a map of the neighborhoods across Chicago. On the map, neighborhoods were broken up in green, yellow, or red areas to communicate the quality of the neighborhoods and the type of investment they were making. You can probably guess which neighborhoods were often red: the black ones. 

Black residents who wanted to buy homes were not shown this map and were often persuaded into home ownership in these red areas. White neighborhoods, through their local Housing Authorities and and HOLC, created “restrictive covenants:” contractual agreements to not rent to black prospective homeowners.  

Black residents were given “contracts,” instead of mortgages, with clauses that allowed the bank to foreclose on the property with one missed payment, even if there was a long history of compliance. This racist institution went unchallenged for decades! More than that, it was funded and promoted by the government, forming the foundational aspects of real estate practices and housing outcomes. It destroyed both the possibility and probability of home ownership for black Chicagoans. 

This system allowed for Chicago to be one of the most segregated cities in the country. A disheartening reality that can be captured by riding the Chicago Red-Line from Howard to 95th/Dan Ryan, and intentionally watching the train demographic shift directly with the stark contrasts in the housing and school quality of each train stop. And that is just from the train.

Enter into these communities of predominantly black and brown residents by foot or through research, and you could witness how far these detrimental differences in access extend to food inequality and poverty. Racial segregation is just a scratch at the surface. 

Although redlining is no longer considered a legitimate home-loans practice, it scarred communities so horrifically that businesses no longer have to secretly avoid the black patrons within a community. Redlining did that work for them. 

The neighborhoods are now racially segregated, and business owners can see that. They can avoid black/brown patrons and justify it because the neighborhoods are “riddled with violence.” Grocery stores no longer lose out on the powerful white dollar because they decided not to build stores in neighborhoods such as North Lawndale, West Garfield and Roseland. They can build elsewhere. And make North Lawndale residents pay for it. And because these neighborhoods are not economically viable, the residents are doing so with their health.

Black infants in Chicago have a 250% higher probability of dying within the first year from preventable, diet-related diseases than white infants ("Infant Mortality"). Most diet-related diseases are often at least 40% more likely in neighborhoods that are at least 75% black. The median household income for black Chicago residents is $31,267, whereas the Chicago average is $55,295 and the average for white residents is $82,158 ("Median Household Income").

Some studies have correlated these health disparities to income, with income disparities being correlated to race. However, some individuals would argue that diet-related illnesses, income, and food deserts are isolated metrics. Metrics that do not prove racial bias. They are cultural problems. People need to make better choices. Results that are not racialized even with the existence of statistical correlation. This inconsistency captures the constant false-narrative creation that sustains racist institutions.  

Redlining was a system created by, funded by, and promoted by the federal government. The creation of the Federal Housing Authority and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation planted the seed of redlining. From there, redlining grew its roots when the federal government “benevolently” requested residential security maps of major cities across the country (just months after passing the National Housing Act to restrict mortgage lending rates). We now exist in a world where this seed of racism was planted and grew to flower race-based food deserts, income disparities, education funding inequalities, diet-related diseases, and disproportionate mortality rates of infectious disease.

If you have made it this far, I would like to end this essay with a prompt that raises several different ideas to consider when we reflect on the disproportionate mortality rates during COVID-19.

Now, imagine this, your school lunch for 8 years of elementary school and 4 years of high school is an outstanding mix of greasy cheese/pepperoni pizza, a sugary cup of syrup garnished with 5 indistinguishable pieces of fruit, and a nice carton of milk. Your school’s dilapidated food chart reminds you that pizza is one of the most efficient food choices because it has both grains, vegetable, dairy, and protein (if you ate pepperoni). 

Then, your options for places to buy groceries from are gas stations and corner stories. The vegetables they carry are canned and fruit is old and most likely bruised, if they have any that is not cupped or canned by groups of six. 

You have been given $1.25  from  your guardians to buy a snack. Your options are between buying a bruised banana on a random counter near the front of the store that is $1.09 or three of your favorite chips/pastries for $1 with a juice--the flavor is “red”--that costs $0.25. Sales tax is not an issue. Which would you choose?

Imagine that you have lived ten or more years of your academic-life having not taken a genuine Health 101 course in school. After you sign up for Intro to Wellness, you are informed that the recommended daily consumption of vegetables and fruit, preferably fresh, are three to four servings. How would you most likely describe your eating habits up until that point?

Imagine you are middle-aged and single. You also did not attend college due to finances and the confusion the college application brings for first-generation students. You did not receive this “Intro to Wellness” reality check. The last time you were in high school, people were allowed to smoke cigarettes in enclosed areas and TV dinners were considered well-balanced meals. You were pre-hypertension and diabetic because your family did not fully understand food health coming from Jim Crow-era south. 

You make $15/hour and work 30 hours a week, just under 35 hours, because you are part-time. That is $1,800.00 a month before taxes and about $1,350 after taxes. The average studio apartment in Chicago cost $950 and the average utility cost is about $130. Once you pay for utilities and rent you have $270. Assuming you do not have a car, you will take public transportation. The cheapest mode for public transportation is $105 for a month-pass; otherwise, paying out of pocket will be $120/month, low estimate. After these costs, you are looking at $165/month left for internet, groceries, streaming service, toiletries, and other necessities. How would you decide to allocate $165 for the month? $41.25/week? $5.50/day?

There are an endless number of scenarios that I could describe given my personal experiences and the experiences of people within my social networks. But that is not the point. Those scenarios are meant to demonstrate the types of costs that numerous black and brown people must consider on a daily basis.

We live in a rare time where the government and “markets” are attempting to respond to financial burdens caused by COVID. Stimulus packages have been passed to resuscitate small business reserves and individual savings. Banks and financial institutions have joined to create emergency funds. However, the president, along with other government officials, has pushed to reopen the markets due to the costs to the U.S. economy. Who, within “the economy,” pays these costs?

The 70% in Chicago, the 81% in Milwaukee, they have always paid the cost. The cost to their health, their income, their life. Costs that were introduced through federal government policy and reinforced by individuals. Costs that have come to bear long after the reversal of such policies. 24.4 million people have filed for unemployment while Amazon, Walmart, and other corporations look for more people to hire (Rushe 1). So, I ask again, who pays the cost? Residents have been called to shelter-in-place, either working from home or continuing their essential work. Essential workers enter chaos amidst a pandemic, whereas some “work-from-homers” have embraced an equal work-life balance of video calls and leisurely scrolling through social media. Essential workers are not living leisurely--rarely have they ever. Leisure comes at a cost. The question is, who pays that cost?


“Asthma.” Chicago Health Atlas, accessed May 6, 2020, 

Block, Daniel R., Noel Chávez, Erika Allen, and Dinah Ramirez. “Food Sovereignty, Urban Food Access, and Food Activism: Contemplating the Connections through Examples from Chicago.” Agriculture and Human Values 29, no. 2 (2011): 203–15.

Dubowitz, Tamara, Shannon N Zenk, Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar, Deborah A Cohen, Robin Beckman, Gerald Hunter, Elizabeth D Steiner, and Rebecca L Collins. “Healthy Food Access for Urban Food Desert Residents: Examination of the Food Environment, Food Purchasing Practices, Diet and BMI.” Public Health Nutrition 18, no. 12 (May 2014): 2220–30.

Fernandez, Lilia. Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Food Deserts in Chicago, Food Deserts in Chicago § (2011).

“Housing and Race in Chicago.” Chicago Public Library, April 30, 2003.

“Infant Mortality.” Chicago Health Atlas. Accessed May 6, 2020. 

“Median Household Income.” Chicago Health Atlas. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Moorehead, Monica. “Black Essential Workers Refuse to Be Invisible with a Higher Risk of Infection.” International Action Center, April 15, 2020.

Perrett, Connor. “Black People Account for 72% of COVID-19 Deaths in Chicago While Making up Less than a Third of City's Population, Mayor Says.” Business Insider. Business Insider, April 12, 2020.

Powell, Teran. “Black Residents Are The Most Impacted By COVID-19 In Milwaukee.” WUWM. Milwaukee NPR, April 17, 2020.

“Racial Restrictive Covenants on Chicago's South Side in 1947.” Chicago and the Midwest (Newberry Library). University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Rushe, Dominic, and Amanda Holpuch. “US Unemployment Applications Reach over 26m as States Struggle to Keep Up.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 23, 2020.

Additional Referenced Sources


“Socioeconomic status and health: how education, income, and occupation contribute to risk factors for cardiovascular disease”-