Thursday, January 20, 2011

Community Based Community and Economic Development: Employee Owned Cooperatives

This short post is inspired by numerous projects such as the Mondragon Cooperative in the Basque region of Spain and entities such as the Evergreen Cooperative in Cleveland (see links below). Models such as these have inspired me and the Center for Urban Transformation to consider cooperative opportunities in Chicago and the region primarily cooperative businesses that are rooted in all aspects of a sustainable food system from production to consumption.

See the video of the Evergreen Cooperative Model:

The possibility of creating employee owned food based businesses across the sustainable food sector is compelling for the Center for Urban Transformation. Imagine for a moment an employee owned company consisting of businesses such as produce carts, mobile markets and produce vending kiosks. Or a chain of community based wellness markets that sell healthy grocery items, high quality produce and offers a host of learning opportunities such as cooking, fitness, stress reduction and wellness classes.

Further expand your imagination to a network of farmer cooperatives in urban and rural settings supplying produce, herbs, poultry, fish and meat raised using sustainable and humane practices for the social enterprises mentioned above as well as employee owned companies that produce products from bread to soups to juices.

Couple that with conversations that have taken place in meetings with community based organizations such as Teamwork Englewood where stakeholders from the community talk about renewable energy projects and the creation of green jobs. Or the women at a meeting and film session I attended in Englewood where they started talking about a community garden to educate and demonstrate ecological principles to once they were shown possible business opportunities such as a buying coop operating out of the church began to discuss how to not only create a community garden but expanded their horizons to think of an urban farm that would supply some of the produce for the buying club.

Communities all over the country are on fire and they want to innovate and create new pathways to healthy communities and jobs. We aren’t “Waiting for Superman or Supermarket”. We don’t understand why we subsidize energy companies with heating or energy assistance programs when we can manufacture and install renewable energy systems and renovate and retrofit so that they use renewable energy systems and are energy efficient.

Join the CUT and our partner organizations such as Teamwork Englewood, Angelic Organics Learning Center, BIG, Sweetwater Organics and in creating a new economic reality in Chicago, Illinois and the region with partners from academia as well as other public and private sectors institutions.

Let's  Make It Happen!


Hazel Johnson: The Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement

I want to acknowledge the transition of Hazel Johnson (1935 – 2011), the founder of People for Community Recovery (PCR). Hazel’s work connected me for the first time to my concern for ecological and environmental matters to the activism that was happening globally relative to people of color and the environment. The Center for Urban Transformation because of her work and the work of countless others’ working to eliminate environmental injustices around the world for the most burdened people is founded and dedicated to integrating the principals of environmental justice into all of our work.

We had the opportunity to work closely with Hazel a few years ago and that opportunity has forever shaped our perceptions and is an ongoing influence on our life and work. Hazel will be deeply missed.

The Center for Urban Transformation extends our deepest condolences to Cheryl Johnson and the rest of the family.

Please consider a donation to PCR to continue their work and to assist in defraying the cost of Hazel’s funeral expenses. Donations may be made via PayPal at the PCR web site

Ashe, Hazel Johnson as she is now an ancestor.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Center for Urban Transformation Plans for 2011

Orrin Williams of CUT at the PEACE CENTER in Englewood informal survey on Urban Ag. from Judith Helfand on Vimeo.

The CUT has spent 2010 in an evaluation period that has lead the organization to conclude through its' ongoing strategic planning process that it will be reorganized as an organization that will become a community and urban planning organization and community development corporation.

Programs for the upcoming year and into the future will be predicated on projects such as the Community Based Research and Focus Group project which will be done in several communities starting in Englewood on the south side of Chicago.

For a preview of the project see the video posted above.The video short here is provided through the Filmmaker Judith Helfand who produced the winner of the cinematography award in the documentary competition at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

The project will do what few organizations have done - it will ask community residents what kinds of options they'd like to see for food access in their community. The focus group part of the project will provide community participants with an overview of the various options for accessing fresh produce available to them from farmers' markets to small grocery store to buying clubs to the option everyone seems to think is what the community (any community thought to be a "food desert") needs - a full service, chain grocery store. The CUT believes that a grocery store is just ONE element to having a healthy food environment and that community input to determine what the community food environment should include is critical to creating a healthy food environment.

To that end once the research and focus group project is completed in Englewood the CUT will work with a variety of partners to develop the social enterprises that reflect the food access and food based economic development requirements the community desires.

If you know or if you have a community  or faith based organization in Englewood please contact the CUT to host a research and focus group session commencing in January 2011. After completing the project in Englewood, the CUT will conduct the project in any communities in the metropolitan area beginning in April 2011. For more information contact us at (773) 956-7251 or

While the CUT is excited about the organizational changes and the community based research project we are most excited about our community development corporation enterprise development work to develop our small grocery store concept - community scale wellness markets and the public market innovation center during 2011. We have retained the services of E.dali Pollard of Kyehui (pronounced kiwi) Consulting to assist us in developing the project. We are working to develop project specific relationships with Chicago Community Ventures and the Chicago Community Loan Fund as well as other public and private partners to develop the enterprises.

Stay tuned to the blog and our website for ongoing updates about the projects.

A Special Thank You to Angela Odoms-Young, PhD, MS, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Nutrition, University of Illinois-Chicago; Patty Boblick, RN, RD, assigned to the project by Angela while she was completing her graduate studies at UIC and Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center for collaborating with the CUT on the development of the community based research and focus group project. 

Also thanks to Harry Rhodes and Growing Home for funding support for doing the project in Englewood and to Warren King and other partners on the Greater Englewood Urban Agriculture Task Force and the members of the Food, Fitness and Health Task Force at Teamwork Englewood for your suggestions and feedback.

Your assistance was invaluable! Gassho!


Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Community Food Environment

Note about the posting:

The following document is posted to the Center for Urban Transformation blog because it is referenced in another document posted here. The first draft of the paper was completed in November of 2004 and was done after discussions with several people who said “write a paper”. The paper was first disseminated in the Spring of 2005 before the popularization of the “food desert” designation by Mari Gallagher and also before a February presentation at the former Park National Bank building by myself, La Donna Redmond and others at which Ms Gallagher was in attendance and stated clearly that she wasn’t aware of the link between the access to high quality food and public health outcomes. In fairness during a recent conversation Mari stated she doesn't remember the conversation. Who said what, when and where doesn't really matter; what does matter is that we recognize the impact diet and nutrition related illness has on ALL communities and that we provide the access, education and cultural framework required to support change and wellness. A study by Ms Gallagher appeared later in 2006 entitled Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago. 

But again we knew what the impacts were and the study confirmed what was known by health care professionals and  community residents and activists. We remember books, like "How to Eat to Live" by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the work of people like Dr. Alvenia Fulton as pathways for linking food and health for me going back to the late 1960's. The Black community has a long history of  activism around food and public health and the work goes on. We need the support and insights from sources both inside and outside of the community as we move forward to develop the institutions, organizations and programs (from field to fork) necessary to create healthy and sustainable communities for people of African descent and the planet. 

The paper was written in a style that is a reflection of our commitment to do work that accessible to everyone and also a reflection of the fact that we have never gotten funding to do research. We don’t have to do research because we live it. We can do research but that is not our purpose. Our purpose is to heal people and communities such as the national and international community of people of African descent in particular but all people generally.

These communities have been marginalized and oppressed for not decades but centuries. One feature of that marginalization and oppression has been the lack of access to high quality food that is a historical phenomena that began with capture and placement in African peoples in the slave castles on the west African coast; during the shipment to the various points of entry throughout the western hemisphere; on to the plantations and cities of the era and finally in contemporary times, in the cities where most people of African descent currently live.

For an excellent overview of the history of African American foodways see “Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America” by Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie of Marist College and his blog entitled Hog and Hominy: Culture, Cooking, Travel and Traditions at Also see the blog for Dr. Monica White of Wayne State University at

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Thrive!

Orrin Williams October 2010; new version December 2010.

 The Community Food Environment:
Creating the Essential Source for Healthy Communities


The term “community” in common parlance is a group of people that share some unique common features. People in general speak of the “community” when there is some issue or concern that confronts them and their sense of collective spirit. It is often difficult to determine where the “community” begins and ends. Or perhaps the community doesn’t really end at all particularly when we consider the true nature of our interconnected existence.

The sociocultural underpinnings of western societies struggle mightily with a worldview and frame of reference that seeks to separate humanity from each other as well as other sentient beings. Western sociocultural forms also insist that the Earth’s habitat is separate from the cosmos and thus the cosmic order.

The true nature of things however is quite different as there is a profound interrelationship between humans and other sentient beings, the Earth and the cosmos. All things are indeed One. As such the community is as defined in biological and ecological terms as generally and for our purposes here as an interacting group of living, sentient entities that interact with their physical and natural surroundings or environment. For urban communities, the community is the area in which you live and the interaction you have with it for providing the services required for life. The overall health of an ecological community, which is what a human community really is, is directly related to the quality of services available to the community. Poor services equal a poor environment for a community to exist in; excellent quality equals an excellent community environment. The challenge is to provide healthy, sustainable communities for all regardless of race, class or any other factors. The focus of this brief paper is food and the role that it plays in a creating a healthy ecosystem or environment in a given community or more specifically what we call the – food environment.

African – Americans and the Food Environment

The food environment as defined by the Center for Urban Transformation (CUT) is the local and regional network from which a community obtains its nutrients. (National and global factors influence the health of the community food environment but a discussion of those factors is beyond the scope of this paper.)
The major concern with the food environment that serves a community is the quality of the nutrient flow a given community has access to. The primary reason for this concern is that the supply and quality of nutrients within a community’s food environment has a direct and profound impact upon the overall health of a community. This correlation between nutrient flows in a community and the health of a community is important to every stage of life, even beginning prior to conception until the end of life. Effectively the supply and quality of the nutrient flow of a community as well as the utilization of that nutrient flow at the individual level determines a host of public health indicators for a community and thus the health status of a community. The overall health of a community can be manifest in a statistical array that measures but is not limited to the following:
Prenatal Health
Early Developmental Processes; Physical, Psychological and Cognitive
Character and Behavioral Development
Immunological Health
A Variety of Cancers
A Variety of Cardiovascular Diseases; Hypertension, Elevated Cholesterol, Heart Attacks and Strokes

These diseases and others not mentioned are impacted directly and profoundly by the supply and quality of a community’s nutrient flows. The correlation between quality nutrition, diet and health is incontrovertible with literally thousands of documents and studies corroborating the correlation. Other factors also contribute to poor health outcomes such as high levels of stress, lack of facilities and spaces for exercise, lack of green space and beautiful landscapes, as well as unhealthy levels of environmental pollutants in the air, water and soil. All of these factors as well as others not listed here are the underlying causes of the high rates of disease in the communities that are predominately inhabited by people of African descent. (While the focus here is African – American communities there should be no celebrations in any other communities. Lower rates don’t mean better; they only means lower. The overall health of Americans is generally not as good as it could be. One reason is because while some communities have greater access, the quality and the choices available in their food environments is poor and the ancillary  factors, such as lack of exercise, that contribute to overall health are not good.

Americans in general don’t get enough exercise, are stressed out, eat on the run and eat highly processed foods that are easy to obtain and consume in their food environments. Just like other forms of environmental degradation such as poor air quality if it is very, very bad in the African – American community, it’s very bad everywhere else. (Latinos and white folks have children with asthma too. Remember the truth of interconnection the same factors contribute to asthma in all children).

Of general interest is the relationship between the African – American community in Chicago with its food environment. Of particular interest is the Englewood/West Englewood (EWE) community areas in Chicago as it will be where the Center for Urban Transformation (CUT) will focus its’ organizational activities. That said the food environment in virtually every community of people of African descent in Chicago or nationally will have patterns very similar to those experienced in EWE community. Recent research and program development has been done for over two years in the Austin community area of Chicago’s West Side. That research has concluded that the food environment in the Austin community is poor in terms of both quality and access.

 The research and project development effort that is a joint effort between the community – based organization, the Institute for Community Resource Development (ICRD) and the Policy Research Action Group (PRAG) is a consortium of community-based and community-focused nonprofit organizations and urban universities which currently include Chicago State University, DePaul University, Loyola University of Chicago, National-Louis University, and University of Illinois, Chicago.

Data is beginning to emerge about various aspects of the food environment of the Austin community. For example, community members recruited by the Westside Health Authority teamed with students from Loyola and Chicago State universities to visit every store in Austin and the bordering suburban community of Oak Park, Illinois to begin an intensive study of food availability. The teams visited a total of 134 stores in the two communities gathering data on the availability and price of food from a list of 102 basic food items.

Some of the findings the research data revealed are that there was a major difference in the food environment of Oak Park and the Austin community although Oak Park is a suburb that sits on the western border of Chicago, specifically the Austin community. Austin has many more outlets selling food than Oak Park with 95 of the 134. Of the 95 stores 50 were small “ma and pop” stores, 19 were liquor stores selling food. Austin’s food environment included only one chain grocer, two chain discount grocers and 3 independent grocers. The researchers looked at how the stores in the two communities differed in terms of price, availability of produce and price. The data revealed that the chain grocer in Austin carried almost every item on the list of 102 basic products. By contrast the discount chains and small stores were missing a vast number of products from the list and the discount grocers didn’t carry culturally significant items such as greens. The most striking finding is that produce determined to be of poor quality was found only in the Austin food environment and organic food was virtually unavailable.

Overall prices were lower in Austin, however the variables that perhaps explain the difference is the availability of food from discount outlets and lower prices for meat and produce in the independent groceries and small stores in contrast to the prices in the chain groceries. The quality of goods in the Austin food environment compared to the Oak Park food environment is unquestionably inferior. This is with great probability one feature in the leakage of dollars spent on food by residents of the Austin community into nearby communities such as Oak Park.

Englewood/West Englewood Food Environment

Developing a theory about the food environment in EWE predicts that the assessment would conclude that the food environment is poor at best. Any differences in the food environments in Austin and EWE would be explained by the socioeconomic factors present in each community, such as the smaller percentage of lower income households; the sheer size of the Austin community area (Austin is the largest community area in Illinois, if it were a separate municipality only Chicago, Rockford and Naperville have a larger population). Otherwise it is predicted that the percentage of economic leakage will approximate the percentage of leakage in Austin. Economic leakage is the amount of money spent outside of the community. Quantifying leakage is a tricky assessment in that many of the dollars spent in the community are spent in stores whose owners live outside of the community. Another element to consider is the role chain, big box retail outlets have on the local economy. One organization that has done compelling and profound work on this impact is Civic Economics ( The organization which began in Austin, Texas, now with offices in Chicago demonstrated convincingly in the Executive Summary of Economic Impact Analysis: A Case Study Local Merchants vs. Chain Retailers that local merchants should form an integral part of the economic and commercial sectors of a community. The case study “compared the local economic impact of three freestanding stores, Borders and local businesses BookPeople and Waterloo” (BookPeople is a local bookstore and Waterloo is a music store). Three principal finding emerged:

  1. Local merchants generate substantially greater economic impact than chain retailers.
  2. Development of urban sites with directly competitive chain merchants will reduce the overall vigor of the local economy.
  3. Modest changes in consumer spending habits can generate substantial local economic impact.

The first two “facts” that emerged are fairly straight forward; the third principal evaluated the impact in the county in which Austin, TX is located if each household shifted $100 of Christmas gift shopping from chain retailers to local businesses. The impact of that shift in spending behaviors would be a boost of $10 million to the local economy.

The first two “facts” revealed that the local economic return for a $100 dollars in spending was $13 at Borders and more than three times as much when spent at BookPeople and Waterloo with the local economy realizing a benefit of $45. Further analysis revealed the in 2002 annual economic benefit per store to the local economy as $800K for Borders; $2.8 mil for BookPeople and $4.1 mil for Waterloo.

While the results of the Austin study indicates the importance of local ownership in a successful formula for sustainable economies and communities Civic Economics did a broader study on the impact of local retailers in Chicago in the north side community of Andersonville. Some highlights of the Andersonville study revealed the following:

In a study comparing the economic impact of ten Andersonville
businesses and their chain competitors, it was found that:

Locally-owned businesses generate a substantial Local
Premium in enhanced economic impact:

1.       For every $100 in consumer spending with a local firm,
$68 remains in the Chicago economy.
2.       For every $100 in consumer spending with a chain firm,
$43 remains in the Chicago economy.
3.       For every square foot occupied by a local firm, local
economic impact is $179.
4.       For every square foot occupied by a chain firm, local
economic impact is $105.

Consumers surveyed on the streets of Andersonville
strongly prefer the neighborhood over agglomerations of
common chain stores:

1.       Over 70% prefer to patronize locally-owned businesses.
2.       Over 80% prefer traditional urban business districts.
3.       Over 10% of respondents reside outside the City of

The study points to clear policy implications:

  1. Local merchants generate substantially greater economic impact than chain firms.
  2. Replacement of local businesses with chains will reduce the overall vigor of the local economy.
  3. Changes in consumer spending habits can generate substantial local economic impact.
  4. Great care must be taken to ensure that public policy
decisions do not inadvertently disadvantage locally owned
businesses. Indeed, it may be in the best interests of communities to institute policies that directly protect them.

The lessons for the overall development of EWE (as well as the surrounding communities which also have important redevelopment plans and strategies in progress and secondary food environments as well as potential markets) should follow the precepts and tenets revealed through the insightful work of Civic Economics and its partners in Austin, TX and Chicago. The creation of the local food environment specifically should to the greatest extent possible and practical be dominated by local retail (as well as wholesale and distribution outlets) companies.

Historically, since the arrival of Africans in the Americas in general and the United States in particular, until the present, the majority of people of African descent have inhabited poor and marginal food environments. The Middle Passage was the beginning of a historical cycle of marginal food environments that continue to contemporary times. Yams are described as the overwhelmingly dominant food provided to captive Africans during transit across the Atlantic Ocean. One African survivor vividly described the predominance of yams as the foodstuff provided during transit and how over one-third of those aboard the ship didn’t survive the crossing. He also described that upon arrival he was in poor condition and unable to stand. (See This was typical and the marginal food environment was extended to the plantation where the captives according to written and archeological records had poorer, marginal food choices such as poorer cuts of meat, receiving the portions that plantation owners discarded, as well as a poorer selection of vegetables and fruits. After Emancipation and following the waves of migratory activities that find 85% of people of African descent living in urban communities the food environment nationally is marginal, continuing the pattern in place since captivity and transit to the Western Hemisphere.

Another clear pattern is that poorer public health outcomes can be expected as described by the captive that couldn’t stand upon arrival and the deaths of over one-third of the captives and continuing to contemporary time manifest in the health statistics and outcomes in communities of African descent. The literature is replete with high rates of cancers, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality and developmental problems, obesity and diabetes. In fact one of the great paradoxes is the rates of obesity seen low and moderate income communities. Low income or poor people are not typically obese in countries of the global south. Why then is it the case in low income communities in the global north? Could it be the marginal natures of the food environment in Chicago, New York, etc. versus the lack of availability in say Kingston or Soweto? Whatever the answer, it is imperative that after suffering the negative impacts of marginal food environments for over 400 years that the development and implementation of an excellent, life sustaining food environment (in Chicago and elsewhere) ensues.

Description of the Optimal, Sustainable Food Environment in Urban Communities

The food environment of a community is the sum total of all of the places which an inhabitant of a community may obtain food for consumption. The pattern of consumption within the food environment for an individual or family varies and to satisfy those varied patterns of consumption there are varied sources from which to obtain food within a community’s food environment. A food environment will include stores ranging from grocery stores (ranging from 5,000 to 100,000 square feet), to convenience stores, liquor stores, “ma and pa” corner stores, produce stands; as well as restaurants ranging from fast food (chain and independently-owned), “sit-down”, as well as other restaurant configurations.

The type and quality of the sum total of a community’s food environment has a pronounced impact on the quality of life and is an indicator of the overall public health status of the community. The quality of a community’s food environment like those of other environmental, social and economic justice issues can be generally predicted and determined by the dominant racial characteristics of a community. In general, the food environments in predominantly White communities on the north side of Chicago such as Lincoln Park, Lakeview or Edgewater have good food environments. Predominately Black south side communities such as Englewood, New City, Chatham and South Shore have poor to fair food environments relative to the north side communities in terms of quality, selection, amenities, ambience and customer service. The contradictions are further heightened by the fact that in Chicago there is but one grocery store owned by a person of African descent. This fact exists in spite of demographic information that Chicago has the largest African – American population of any county in the United States with 1.4 million people of African descent according to the U.S. Census. Of the African – American population in Cook County 1.06 million live in Chicago. Nearly one-third of African –American families earn household incomes of more than $50,000, with a median household income of $29,086. The median income for people of African descent in Chicago is lower than that for any other racial group with the median income for whites being $49,222, for Hispanics it is $35,543 and for Asians it is $40,529.

The Local Initiative Support Corporation of Chicago (LISC) ( has a New Communities Program (NCP) which is focused on developing healthy communities through comprehensive planning and project implementation in 16 Chicago communities ( One element of the NCP for each targeted community is “Top 10 Issues: What Neighbors Talk About”, in that portion of the NCP, communities such as Englewood wanted to see retail food outlets and the emergence of African-American entrepreneurship. This is one of the central programming areas of the CUT; additionally the Englewood community is where the organization wants to create its initial retail food and grocery outlets.

The CUT plans in this area also include the development and construction of its flagship large grocery store (at least 25,000 square feet). The Bronzeville community had been where the CUT had planned to develop its flagship store; the organization’s strategic plan has since shifted to Englewood for the development of its initial food and grocery based operations. This is consistent with the CUT long range planning that includes the proliferation of food and grocery based businesses into several south side communities. The CUT see the development of an optimal food environment as one of the most important elements for creating healthy and sustainable communities. The underpinning for this rationale is the implication of nutritional and dietary factors in a host of diseases and public health crises, locally, regionally and nationally. The food environment is therefore a critical element in the creation of an excellent public health sector as it is an element in the economic and community development aspects of healthy and sustainable communities.

The food environment in a community as stated earlier is a diverse and varied environment. As such while a goal is to develop the larger grocery store there must be a focus on developing various food and grocery niches within a community’s food environment. In order to meet the needs of a community’s nutrient flows various niches in the food environment must be occupied. Each niche in the food environment in a community is critical to the creation of a healthy and sustainable community. Therefore the CUT will outline here the niches of the food environment with benchmarks for their development and implementation.

The Food Environment: The CUT Englewood Plan

As stated earlier the optimal food environment of a community is as diverse as any other ecosystem. Forests, oceans, lakes, ponds and even deserts have diverse species and niches within its boundaries if it is healthy and in balance. The same is true the food environment in a community that is healthy, ecologically sustainable and human oriented. The CUT recognizes the following elements as vital to a healthy food environment:

Community Gardens and Urban Agriculture

The CUT recognizes the important role of community gardens and urban agricultural systems in a community’s food environment. Even this aspect of a food environment is varied in its application with environmental niches such as small backyard gardens supplementing a family’s nutrient flow to large commercial greenhouse and hydroponic operations. The common element in the development of this food environment niche is the safety of community residents and the environment in any application. Examples of this include soil testing, the construction of raised garden beds, and the use of safe materials for the construction of the garden beds.

 For larger operations such as greenhouses and hydroponic facilities the focus will be on worker health and safety as well as environmental protection through the use of ecological and organic agricultural practices adapted for urban applications. The development and exploration of the potential of this niche has barely been done virtually anywhere in the United States. Other countries such as Canada, Cuba, Australia, Spain, Israel and Mexico have been much more aggressive in developing this food environment niche. This particular niche has great potential for widespread application within the realm of brownfields redevelopment and the recycling of commercial facilities in several south side communities. Hydroponics and greenhouse also offer options for the residential grower to extend growing seasons (greenhouses) and/or to grow a portion of their food year-round (hydroponics).

The large-scale commercial operations of the future are an area of interest to the CUT. The smaller urban farms and community gardens are projects which the CUT will play an advocacy role rather than a participatory one. The CUT will provide letters of support and any other institutional support that other organizations or institutions may require.

Produce Markets

The CUT is interested in facilitating the development of several strategically located produce markets throughout the EWE program area. The produce markets will occupy commercial spaces typically scaled between 6,000 sq. ft to 8,000 sq. ft. The produce market program will sell products other than produce; however produce will be the primary focus of these outlets. The anticipated product mix will include organic products to the greatest extent possible predicated upon market receptivity and demand. Conventionally grown produce will also be available for those customers that prefer them because of cost or other factors. The produce markets will also serve as venues for product demonstrations for marketing new products to the community allowing in particular the organic food sector to increase its market share through outreach to communities that have been traditionally ignored by the organic food sector and are in need of a vastly upgraded community food environment. From a broader perspective the market support for organic precuts will assist in a more ecologically sound agricultural system in the United States and globally. A larger and diverse market will also facilitate a lowering of the price points for organic produce and products as quantities and demand increase.

Another important element for the produce markets will as potential markets for local and regional limited-resource farmers in general and farmers of African descent in particular. A focus on developing markets for limited-resource farmers will provide an incentive for more farmers in Illinois and the Midwest region to shift to production crops (broccoli, greens, apples, etc.) from commodity crops (corn, wheat, oats, etc.). Also increased revenues for this group of farmers will hopefully assist their ability to attract capital for things such as farm equipment; equipment and buildings that allow the extension of the growing season; transportation for getting products to markets and labor.

The recommended scale of the produce markets in the EWE food environment will allow space for selling some grocery items, bulk products and perishable goods (such as a small meat and fish section, fruit juices, eggs, etc.).

Grocery Stores

EWE particularly as it is redeveloped and reinvigorated will be able to support several grocery stores within its boundaries with stores ranging up to about 30,000 sq. ft. The grocery stores will be full service grocery stores selling a variety of products with an innovative product mix that heretofore as not been seen in the community  (see as an example). The CUT envisions these venues as having facilities that allow for educational and community outreach programs such as cooking, health education and exercise classes ranging from dance to martial arts to yoga.

Included in the product mix will be vitamins, herbs, natural body care products as well as a range of products one would anticipate being available in a full service grocery store. Another market that should be supported by the network of produce markets and grocery stores is the fair trade system particularly for products such as tea; coffee and cacao (see and

The CUT envisions developing at least one store in the EWE boundaries that also has facilities for complementary medicine practices including western, allopathic medicine; acupuncture, chiropractic as well as other modalities. Ideally the facility would operate in partnership with an institution such as St. Bernard’s Hospital; if not feasible an institutional relationship with Northwestern University or the University of Chicago medical schools and/or hospitals may be possible.

The CUT is also particularly interested in opportunities to develop at least one grocery store to anchor a transit-oriented development (TOD) project somewhere along the green and/or red rapid transit lines. The CUT is particularly interested in developing a TOD venture near the 63rd and Ashland green line station that would be able to benefit from not only transit customers but also the heavy automobile traffic on both 63rd Street as well as the traffic on Ashland Ave. Other ventures in a TOD project in that area could include businesses such as an environmentally friendly dry cleaner (, a day care center, fitness center, cooperative bookstore and a copy center to name a few options.

The ultimate goal of both the produce markets and grocery stores is to offer consumers a range of high quality products, excellent customer service and great ambience in a well-lit, exceptionally clean environment.


This section excludes major chain fast food establishments. The CUT favors sit down restaurants that serve a range of clienteles from families to couples and are open to accommodate a breakfast, lunch or dinner clientele as well as late night diners. Far more interesting restaurant possibilities exist particularly if there was an active recruitment program to attract restaurateurs offering a variety of ethnic cuisines, vegetarian, seafood specialty options. It is interesting to consider that the African-American community may be more interested in variety than it is often given credit for and that it is also quite possible that the EWE community can become a desirable south side destination for restaurant dining.

There should be an emphasis on the same high quality standards for this sector as there is for any other niche in the community food environment. There should also be strict attention paid to attracting restaurateurs that are committed to offering choices that are beneficial to the overall health of the community’s residents. While it is impossible to restrict the capacity of fast food chains and their unhealthy offerings from entering the community it is imperative that we have options on the opposite end of the spectrum offering healthy options for this niche of the community food environment.

Food-Based Community and Economic Development Opportunities

There should be an emphasis placed on the development of special market opportunities to develop and emerge for those seeking entrepreneurial opportunities in the community food environment. Opportunities in this niche that may be of interest include but are not limited to, grocery/produce markets in senior citizen buildings, mobile produce stands, caterers and bakery operations.

Caterers and bakers could share a business incubator commercial kitchen that would be available on a subscription or reservation basis. Participants would be provided with support services required to establish a successful food based microenterprise. The facility would meet all of the health and safety standards required for a commercial food business making these companies eligible to provide wholesale and retail products to various businesses in the community food environment. One such example would be supplying bread and other baked goods to grocery stores and produce markets in the EWE food environment and throughout the region.

A bakery is another business component that the CUT is interested in developing. The Greyston Foundation, an organization is an inspiration to and of which many of the CUT program designs are modeled, has a bakery business that the CUT considers worthy of replication in the Englewood community. The CUT version of the Greyston Bakery will reflect the local market realities and have an expanded product mix including breads, cookies and pies, with a commitment to using the highest quality ingredients, while retaining much of the Greyston Bakery model.

The bakery facility could potentially be planned, developed and constructed as the site for the commercial kitchen business incubator. Resources such as office staff, photocopying, fax line(s), accounting, etc. could be planned to accommodate members of the incubator. The only restrictions to membership in the commercial kitchen business incubator are capacity, an unwillingness to apply high quality standards to the products manufactured on site and failure to meet any licensing or regulatory requirements that may exist. The commercial kitchen business incubator would be a full service facility available to entrepreneurs in virtually any aspect of the food business sector and would not be limited to those in the bakery sector. More information about commercial kitchen incubators and how they are organized may be found at the Wisconsin Kitchen Incubator Network, the Acenet: Food Ventures the Community Kitchen Incubator Orientation Guide and the Toronto Kitchen Incubator.

Mom and Pop stores must be included in the community food environment and provided with the technical and financial services for those establishments that are interested in upgrading their product mix and contributing to improving the public health outcomes in Englewood. The planning, development and implementation of a program to accomplish these goals and to benefit this niche of the food environment is critical. This category of businesses may indeed share the goals of creating healthy communities but for example they may lack the resources necessary to obtain the proper refrigeration and display units for produce. Capital acquisition programs for this type of upgrade should be created to facilitate the creation of a healthy Englewood and improving the economic development calculus for small business operators.

Creating the Healthy Community Food Environment

This section offers only the briefest overview of some of the program elements that are required for creating a comprehensive, short and long term plan for the community food environment in the Englewood community.

  1. GIS Mapping of the community food environment as it currently exists; creation of maps detailing the short and long term potential for creating all of the elements outlined above in the community food environment of the future.
  2. Focus groups of community residents to receive their input into the design of the community food environment. A focus group of merchants should also be created including not only store owners (regardless of scale of operation) and entities such as entrepreneurs that sell produce from their pickup trucks to determine what their needs may be relative to the creation of the new community food environment.
  3. Creation of an advisory committee and team of consultants to provide various levels of technical assistance for various program aspects throughout the development process. An example of the type of assistance this team of consultants would provide is business plan creation for various food based businesses. The team would also provide technical assistance to entrepreneurs interested in creating food-based businesses with business plan development, market analysis and legally organizing the appropriate corporate structure.
  4. A development and fund raising strategy is undoubtedly the most critical piece. Program support for the CUT as well as other community stakeholders is critical especially for the next 5 to 6 years. Financial support is also required to pay for the services of consultants and other providers of technical assistance for various aspects of the program. Pro bon services are nice but paid services creates a system of priorities and accountability that are not generally established in pro bono arrangements. While pro bono services and in-kind services are desirable in some cases, the experiences of the staff and directors of the CUT have led us to conclude that human and organizational behaviors are not the same for paying clients and the recipients of pro bono services. Thus development and fund raising activities must be a priority if the CUT or any other stakeholders are to be successful in creating an excellent community food environment.
  5. Commitment to “green” architecture and design for all projects in its various manifestations.

This concludes this briefing paper and its publication should not be construed as the definitive instrument concerning the topics presented here. The CUT certainly has its program ideas, ethics, values and goals that it brings to the table but the organization comes to the table in the spirit of communalism and relishes the role of facilitator in a process that includes many individuals and institutions to insure programmatic success.

This briefing paper also is not a detailed strategic plan or guideline for any project but it does provide some insight into the organizational thinking of the CUT, its staff and Board of Directors. The CUT hopes that other organizations and individuals share our vision and that will work closely with us to pursue the overarching goal of creating and healthy Englewood and the creation of a high quality community food environment. It is also our goal that the program elements here and the success of the programs created in Englewood provide a source of inspiration and replicable programs for other communities in the United States and globally.

Orrin Williams
Center for Urban Transformation
May 2005

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Clarifying the CUT Critique of the Term “Food Desert”

I wanted to post to the blog some clarification regarding the CUT critique of the term "food desert". First I want to make it clear to everyone that our critique is not a personal attack on the person responsible for bring the term into popular usage in the United States, Mari Gallagher. In fact  Mari seems to be  interested in and works hard on food access and food system issues. Perhaps there could be potential collaborations were she to show the propensity to work on behalf of community based ownership and social enterprise development models in the communities she has deemed "food deserts" rather than working to attract corporate interests that are only going to practice extractive capitalism.

Our critique is indeed an effort to expand the dialog, program development opportunities and policy considerations regarding food and health. Hopefully, our critique will strengthen the work and understanding of Mari and other working on food access, food security and local and regional food system issues particularly as it relates to communities of people of African descent.

The term is important with respect to the fact that it has raised the awareness of many people about the issues of food access and food security and for that reason as my mother would say I give credit where credit is due. The term is an important one in that it allows dialog to proceed around food and public health outcomes.

My critique is instead based upon the following points:

  • The community food environment (see the concept paper written about 5 years ago, The
    Community Food Environment on the CUT web site found in communities of predominately people of African descent are poor food environments for complex historical reasons related to a legacy of slavery and oppression. As a friend and colleague in the food system movement states these communities have been "redlined" in terms of access to capital and have been exploited historically by those outside of the community as a route to economic advancement. The trend continues in contemporary times and can be seen in the preponderance of Arab and South Asian merchants. There is currently no Black owner of any grocery store in Chicago that we know of and only a very small percentage of corner stores are Black owned. Opportunities for wealth creation and the building of a strong local and regional economy are available if the local and regional food system that is emerging is based upon economic and social justice principles. Organizations such as Civic Economics ( have done extensive research about the importance of the local economy as a way to strengthen communities and local and regional communities.
  • Another element of our critique is that human health is a four pronged endeavor that includes food, fitness/exercise, stress reduction and access to various integrative and complementary prevention and treatment modalities. The food part of the health formula is in effect the low hanging fruit. What needs to be included in the advancement of healthy communities is vastly increased access to fitness and exercise instruction and venues; instruction in and access to stress reduction modalities such as meditation, yoga, qigong and tai chi and increased awareness and access to various integrative health care modalities such as acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic medicine, therapeutic massage as well as allopathic medical practices. Personally, I have to travel to the north side for acupuncture and qigong treatment and instruction. There is limited access to various modalities on the south side but those venues are often found in predominately White communities such as Hyde Park and Beverly. The access to the range of health promoting activities described here is very obvious if one spends anytime in communities on the north side of Chicago and suburban areas with a plethora of options available in those communities while they are virtually nonexistent in south and west side communities. Access to these practices must increase but so does the level of awareness and education for these communities must increase as well so that people can begin to take advantage of health promoting practices to which they have been denied. There is definitely some awareness of many of these opportunities but just like accessing food can be difficult for many in the community access to all of the options available is difficult as well.
  • The destruction of cooking as a cultural constant is related in large part but not totally, to the lack of access to fresh produce in communities. Other contributing factors include (in every community) the overwhelming availability of highly processed foods, the availability of highly processed foods in the range of food retail operations from corner stores to full service grocery stores; nutritionally deficient fast foods (not all "fast food" is bad; more on that in an upcoming blog posting) and such modern conveniences such as the microwave. The cultural piece can't be ignored or minimized one only needs to witness the vibrant food and food shopping cultures that exist in many "immigrant" communities where many households still cook. Take a trip to Chinatown, the Latino communities such as Little Village or the South Asian community and shops on Devon Avenue to see what I'm talking about. I was in the Pete's Market on 47th Street and Kedzie Avenue this past weekend and I am still amazed at how crowded the store is and the level of fresh produce, fish and meat that I observe in the carts of fellow shoppers often in sharp contrast to my observations in stores where shoppers are largely African American. There is a cultural pattern that remains; although we know that many ethnic communities drift away from their food culture and heritage towards the American diet but we need to reengage a food culture that is based upon fresh produce, healthier patterns of meat consumption, prepared rather than highly processed foods and healthy food preparation practices and techniques.
  • A cultural renaissance and resurgence around cooking needs to be initiated and the cornerstone of that effort is cooking and nutritional instruction that occurs at the community level. I noticed on a trip to a Whole Foods Market (WFM) today the marketing of a "Basic Cooking Class". Venues such as WFM offer a range of classes ranging from cooking to exercise classes. Other examples and best practices exist as discovered through the CUT research and analysis of entities such as WFM and food coops around the country. The CUT is working on a concept, soon to be unveiled, that integrates these best practices into community based retail operations.
  • Finally there has been a historic lack of resources available to Black communities. One need look no further than the woeful state of public education and the disparity in funding for African American students versus that available in many White communities. Within that system the physical facilities are in a state of disrepair that is so critical that it undermines the capacity of children and teachers to thrive. We can note similar disparities in virtually all aspects of community life be it education, access to health care, libraries, adequate housing, etc. All of these examples and the issues emanating from them are really part and parcel of the apartheid system (see the Algebra Project web site an organization founded and operated by Bob Moses who talks about the state of public education as educational apartheid) that sadly continues to exist in the United States and throughout the Americas.

    I can go on but I think you can begin to see where I'm coming from. The term "food desert" is just the beginning of the conversations, program development and policy initiatives that need to occur. Also a range of social enterprises devoted to food, fitness and health need to be supported via philanthropic and government agencies. Sources of venture capital need to be created that make capital available to food, fitness and health care providers ranging from farmers (urban and rural), health care providers to wholesale and retail entrepreneurs.

    In a later post the CUT will present a concept related to the "susu" which is a system of savings and loans rooted in African cultures as a mechanism for creating pools of capital for the development of small and medium sized social enterprises from farm to table. See and for an overview of the concept.

    Also look for postings related to the renaissance of African American foodways and a refreshing look at "soul food" focused on the core ingredients of the cuisine such as a variety of greens, cabbage, sweet potatoes, okra, beans, grains, etc and evolving the cooking practices and techniques so that the core ingredients are prepared in a healthy way creating a pathway to new foodways.

    If you have recipes for healthy approaches to cooking and fresh ingredients pass them on for possible posting.

    Orrin Williams

    May 4, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

Food and Human Rights

The connection between food and human rights is like the human rights movement itself is a recent occurrence. In spite of the lofty notions held by our mainstream thinking and revisionist tendencies about documents such as the United States Constitution an important analysis is drawn from A Short History of Human Rights from the Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota’s web site:

Documents asserting individual rights, such the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) are the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents. Yet many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, excluded women, people of color, and members of certain social, religious, economic, and political groups. Nevertheless, oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles these documents express to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination .

The human rights movement that took a foothold during the 20th Century at least in intent and as part of oppressed people sense of self determination is a movement that is rooted in inclusiveness. There is no doubt a lot of work to be done regarding inclusiveness and diversity but the trend is at the risk of redundancy one of inclusiveness.

The principle document outlining this inclusive goal of human rights for all is laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) . The UDHR was adopted only 60 years ago as the first document to recognize the applicability of universal human rights to all individuals on the planet. It is a remarkable document and despite any criticism one may have about the United Nations; the document is a tribute to the organization’s capacity to bring about global cooperation. The differing ideological and religious doctrines required 1,400 votes before deciding upon the final document and included in it is the universal right to food access. The text concerning food in the UDHR is as follows:

Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, and housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

The fact that food is addressed in the UDHR in the context of overall health and well being is significant in that it is squarely how food should be contextualized as an essential element for overall health and well being for all individuals and communities.

The essential status of food (especially nutritious and high quality in contrast to highly processed, low quality fare) as part of healthy individuals and communities as a human right is firmly established and will provide the framework for this particular article.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN was established in 1945 before the UDHR was adopted and since then there has been a historical trajectory of events , publications and initiatives until contemporary times. Of particular significance was the World Food Summit of 1996 that was convened to review the progress made after the World Food Conference of 1974 a conference where Henry Kissinger stated that in 10 years no child should ever go to bed hungry. Needless to say the Kissinger prediction didn’t come to pass and alas the 1996 World Food Summit set human rights as the essential policy framework for food security and food justice policy initiatives. As a result the human rights framework also informs the work of nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations around the world.

The veracity of human rights as the framework for food security and justice issues cannot be contested however viewing these issues simply from the lens of human rights may cause one to misunderstand the complexity of food related issues. It is important that one understands the complex links in the struggle to achieve food security and food justice whether in the urban communities of the United States or any corner of the planet.

Similarly we need to establish another parameter of our quest for food security and food justice; that is that hunger is not the only concern that we need to have relative to any discussion of access and justice. This is not an argument presented to suggest in any way that hunger is not important and indeed the paramount issue relative to food security and food justice because it clearly is. That said however the ante must be raised to secure high quality food and calories as a right for every human being. While there will be a more in depth discussion of the relationship to food, nutrition and health later in this monograph the importance of high quality food to all aspects of life cannot be understated; high quality food is critical to fetal and infant development and all stages of life. Food security and food justice must struggle to end hunger while insuring the highest quality food is available to all.

The only way to end hunger and supply the highest quality food possible to humankind is to profoundly change the dominant food system paradigm that favors agribusiness, industrial agriculture and highly processed food with a food system that is sustainable ecologically and absolutely human oriented. The development of a just and secure food system will require an effort of epic proportions that will employ some our greatest minds, particularly from the ranks of those that understand the link between a just and sustainable food system and the continued survival of global civilization.

While the ecological impact of conventional, industrial agriculture is beyond the scope of this paper it is important to briefly mention that a just and secure food system that is sustainable and ecologically sensitive is critical to pollution prevention, ecosystem restoration, the mitigation of climate change and the impact of reliance on fossil fuels on foreign affairs, world peace and resource depletion. As such it is clear that food and the continued survival of life as we know it are inextricably linked.

If one wants to begin to understand the complexity of all of the elements of the food system and how they are profoundly linked I direct you to the appendix of Paul Hawken’s wonderful book Blessed Unrest. In the book’s appendix there is a section entitled “Food and Nourishment”, in that section there are seven subheadings; Food Aid, Food Literacy, Food Supply, Global Food Supply and Sustainability, Hunger and Food Security, Local Food Systems and Malnutrition, Diet, Disease and Education.

Each of these sections is part of the collective issues that must be addressed if there is to be a just and secure food system; that insures high quality food and calories for the human population that is done in a way that insures the integrity of the global life support system provided by Mother Earth.

Justice for Our Food Producers and the Environment

No discussion of food security and food justice can be done without considering the plight of farmers and those that are generally called farm workers .

Industrial agriculture is a major source of environmental—and, by extension, human--degradation today more than ever. The proliferation and accumulation of pollutants due to the use of herbicides and pesticides has created numerous events of ground and surface water pollution. The companies that manufacture these substances are often times amongst those cited as being some of the greatest sources of pollution on the planet. Furthermore, the industrial or factory farms for poultry, cattle and hogs create a monumental environmental threat.

Likewise farmers and farm workers display a variety of symptoms from their exposure to the compounds that are used as agricultural inputs such as herbicides and pesticides. The exposure of agricultural sector workers manifests itself in an array of disorders amongst the workers and the surrounding rural communities.

The occupational health and safety literature regarding the agricultural sector is replete with farm workers reporting symptoms from pesticide exposures such as headaches, dizziness, confusion, irritability, muscle twitching; gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps and respiratory symptoms such as nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. The exposures globally are such that they cannot be ignored as they pose a huge public health crisis that should be addressed immediately.

The environmental risks to the land the people and the ecosystems are such that industrial agriculture must command the attention of environmental, social and economic justice advocates and activists. The stated concern of the human rights and social justice movements about protecting people where they live, work, play, learn and pray is no more compelling anywhere than it is with respect to pesticides, herbicides and other inputs in the agricultural (and non-agricultural) setting. Whole systems thinking and solutions must be sought by the environmental justice movement and those in and working on behalf of the agricultural community to eliminate the overall risks posed by industrial agriculture. Food justice and security in this instance means supporting agricultural policies such as sustainable and ecologically sound agricultural techniques in an effort to drastically reduce if not eliminate harmful agricultural inputs..

Resource depletion such as the loss of topsoil is another negative environmental outcome of the industrial agricultural system. When considered from the context of food production, topsoil ranks near the top (next to water) of the assets we acquire from nature. If you don’t believe it, consider for a moment that you can live only a few moments without air, 3 or 4 days without water, and 5 to 7 days without food. Yet soil erosion and the loss of topsoil are not often thought of as important issues within the framework of food security and food justice initiatives. It should fly up near the top of our concerns when we consider that we are losing our capacity to grow most of our food if we do not eliminate topsoil depletion.

The loss of agricultural land due to residential or industrial “development,” is a global problem. As many communities expand or sprawl into natural or agricultural lands, they are lost to production for a very long time, if not forever. All of these scenarios are unsustainable in the long term and threaten the ecological heritage that our future generations will have to rely upon for their very existence. Will we leave them an ecological debt that they cannot repay? Will our practices vastly reduce the quality of life or indeed end life, as we know it? I do not want to know the answer. I would rather solve the problems and create a global food system that is just and sustainable.

People of African Descent and the Quest for Food Justice and Human Rights

The struggle for human rights and the interconnection to food security and food justice issues is incontrovertible. The struggle for human rights for people of African descent not only in the United States but throughout the Americas has been a struggle at all level of existence for over 350 years.

The quest for human rights for people of African descent is to this day so profound that Michael Harrington in his 1962 classic The Other America: Poverty in the United States offers the following:

Physical and mental disabilities are, to be sure, an important part of poverty in America. The poor are sick in body and in spirit. But this is not an isolated fact about them, an individual "case," a stroke of bad luck. Disease, alcoholism, low IQ's, these express a whole way of life. They are, in the main, the effects of an environment, not the biographies of unlucky individuals. Because of this, the new poverty is something that cannot be dealt with by first aid. If there is to be a lasting assault on the shame of the other America, it must seek to root out of this society an entire environment, and not just the relief of individuals.

Finally, one might summarize the newness of contemporary poverty by saying: These are the people who are immune to progress. But then the facts are even more cruel. The other Americans are the victims of the very inventions and machines that have provided a higher living standard for the rest of the society. They are upside-down in the Economy and for them greater productivity often means worse jobs; agricultural advance becomes hunger .

It is certainly true that there are hungry people in Black communities across the United States and throughout the Americas and that their plight is part of the collective global shame of poverty and hunger; but alas even those that have enough to eat especially in the United States have another problem. That problem is the lack of access in Black communities to high quality food and calories often without regard to socioeconomic status.

Historically, since the arrival of Africans in the Americas in general and the United States in particular, until the present, the majority of people of African descent have inhabited poor and marginal food environments. The Middle Passage was the beginning of a historical cycle of marginal food environments that continue to contemporary times. Yams are described as the overwhelmingly dominant food provided to captive Africans during transit across the Atlantic Ocean. One African survivor vividly described the predominance of yams as the foodstuff provided during transit and how over one-third of those aboard the ship didn’t survive the crossing. He also described that upon arrival he was in poor condition and unable to stand.

This was typical and the marginal food environment was extended to the plantation where the captives according to written and archeological records had poorer, marginal food choices such as poorer cuts of meat, receiving the portions that plantation owners discarded, as well as a poorer selection of vegetables and fruits. After Emancipation and following the waves of migratory activities that find 85% of people of African descent living in urban communities the food environment nationally is marginal, continuing the pattern in place since captivity and transit to the Western Hemisphere.

Another clear pattern is that poorer public health outcomes can be expected just as described by the captive that couldn’t stand upon his arrival as well as the deaths of over one-third of the captives. That pattern that continues into contemporary time is manifest in the health statistics and public health outcomes in communities of African descent.

The public health and epidemiological literature is replete with high rates of cancers, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality and developmental problems, obesity and diabetes. In fact one of the great paradoxes is the rates of obesity seen low and moderate income communities. Low income or poor people are not typically obese in countries of the global south. Why then is obesity common in low income communities in the global north? Could it be the marginal nature of the food environment in Chicago, New York, etc. with the preponderance of the food choices being of poor quality versus the lack of availability and poverty in say Kingston or Soweto (traditional markets in the global South are often filled with fresh food, opposed to the processed food found in grocery stores in the United States, for those that can afford it)? Whatever the answer, it is imperative that after suffering the negative impacts of marginal food environments for over 400 years that the development and implementation of an excellent, life sustaining food environment (in Chicago and elsewhere) becomes a top priority in the development of healthy and sustainable communities.

The marginal community food environment found in the communities of people of African descent is characterized by the profound lack of readily accessible high quality food and calories. These communities are profoundly characterized by the lack of choices from which its inhabitants can have access to and be able to select high quality food and calories.

The resulting lack of access creates a public health and epidemiological profile that includes for example:

3.2 million African Americans have diabetes, which is 80 percent higher than the disease’s prevalence among whites.

The infant mortality gap between blacks and whites doubled between 1950 and 2002.

Women—of any class—who reported high levels of experience with racial discrimination were nearly five times as likely to deliver underweight babies as those who reported no experience with it.

Because I live and work in Chicago I decided to take a look at health statistics for people of African descent in Illinois. Not surprisingly the statistics for cardiovascular disease rates were consistent with national epidemiological profiles. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reports the following:

African Americans have the highest CVD age-adjusted mortality rates (863.0/100,000) in Illinois – more than 35.2 percent higher compared to whites (638.4/100,000) and 158.8 percent higher compared to other races (333.5/100,000).

Despite the differences in age-adjusted mortality rates by race, CVD remains the leading cause of death for all races.
African-American men are especially at risk for dying from CVD. The age-adjusted mortality rate for African American men is 1,023.4/100,000, higher than any other race-gender group.

Women of other races (non-white and non-African American) have the lowest CVD age-adjusted mortality rate at 280.1/100,000.

Heart disease includes ischemic heart disease, coronary heart failure and other diseases of the heart. It is the most common form of CVD and can cause angina (chest pain), heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and sudden cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, a heart attack is usually the first sign of heart disease.
Heart disease is the most common form of cardiovascular disease and is the single leading cause of death in Illinois and the United States. In Illinois during 2003, 14,144 men and 15,310 women older than the age of 34 died of heart disease.

Although heart disease age-adjusted mortality rates for all race groups in Illinois are declining, gaps are still evident. African-American men have the highest heart disease age-adjusted mortality rate (807.5/100,000).

Furthermore, while overall heart disease mortality rates are declining, rates for African Americans are declining at an average of 1.5 percent per year compared to whites at 2.0 percent per year.
American men have the highest heart disease age-adjusted mortality rate (807.5/100,000) and women in the other races category (189.8/100,000) have the lowest rate.

African-American women die of heart disease at 1.4 times the rate of white women. African-American men die of heart disease at 1.3 times the rate of white men.
Similar health disparities exist for stroke as well as evidenced by the following IDPH figures:

Stroke is the third single leading cause of death in Illinois and accounts for 18 percent of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease. Differences in stroke age-adjusted mortality rates are most noted between race groups, and race-gender groups. Although more than 5,800 whites in Illinois died from stroke, compared to 959 African Americans and 85 of other races, stroke age-adjusted mortality rates for African Americans are 27.8 percent greater than whites, and 96.3 percent greater than other races.

Noticeable differences also are found in gender/race groups. African-American men have stroke age-adjusted mortality rates that are 43.7 percent higher than for white men, and African-American women have stroke age-adjusted mortality rates that are 15.5 percent greater than those for white women .

The epidemiological profile for people of African descent of diseases that have a nutritional and dietary component are evidence of the need to create food access and food security initiatives that insure the widespread availability of high quality calories throughout communities of African descent.

This initiative must be carried out across socioeconomic lines as one factor that gets little attention is that health disparities and limited food security and access issues aren’t confined to poorer Black communities but all Black communities.

Even when people of African descent aren’t confined through patterns of segregation to predominantly Black communities their health status remains tenuous although socioeconomic differences exist among Blacks. This is probably due to access to health insurance, access to transportation that allows for the capacity to make up for any lack of access and other lifestyle and behavioral factors. Yet even though there are socioeconomic differences between Black social classes nonetheless the disparities between Blacks and Whites overall do not change.

In a Mother Jones article entitled, Upward Mobility, the author Kai Wright in describing the death of his father who in spite of being a physician and having a high level of income succumbed at 60 years old from type 2 diabetes. In the article he makes the following salient points about socioeconomic status and health disparities:

Progressive convention says the problem lies in poverty: too many black people uninsured, too few with access to routine care. And there’s certainly clear enough evidence of a link between disease and poverty.

But what no one can figure out is why the problem is getting worse even as socioeconomic conditions are improving. How does a successful, educated, and well-insured man like my father die before the age of 60 at the hands of a disease that is totally preventable?

Here’s where the debate turns political. If genes are decisive, then no one is to blame for the racial imbalance in Americans’ health. If it’s lifestyle that divides the sick from the well, then the problem is a matter of personal choice.

But there’s a third way to look at the disparity, one that is both more complex and more disturbing. This theory holds that black folks carry a legacy of disease that isn’t genetic but that nonetheless is transferred from one generation to the next—and eventually catches up even with those who clamber up the socioeconomic ladder. Dad died, according to this theory, from the side effects of racism.

Since the civil rights movement, African Americans have improved their lot in life by almost every measure: Black and white incomes are more equal, the racial gap in school dropout rates has been cut by a third, the glass ceilings of many professions have at least cracked. But in that same period, black America has made no progress on what may be the most important measure of all: living to see old age.

According to a paper coauthored by former Surgeon General David Satcher that appeared in Health Affairs last year, the gap between black and white mortality rates exploded among middle-aged men during my father’s lifetime—rising by just over 20 percent between 1960 and 2000—while the overall black-white death gap hasn’t budged from an alarming 40 percent since Dad was a grade-schooler. In an accompanying article, University of Michigan sociology and epidemiology professor David Williams highlighted specific trends. Black and white death rates from heart disease were equal in 1950; by 2002 blacks died 30 percent more often. Blacks had a 10 percent lower cancer death rate than whites in 1950; now it’s 25 percent higher.

The infant mortality gap doubled between 1950 and 2002.

As you move up the economic ladder, black health drastically improves, but the disparities between blacks and whites do not. One dramatic study showed that infants of college-educated black women are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts, largely owing to low birth weight. If genetics isn’t the explanation for those sorts of counterintuitive facts, what is?

The answer, a growing number of researchers say, is that the vaunted black middle class simply ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Black strivers have a much harder time turning their paychecks into the status, opportunity, and security that white yuppies take for granted. “Maybe one of the sources of the anger of the black middle class,” suggests Brandeis University sociologist Thomas Shapiro, a leading proponent of the theory of differential realities for bourgeois blacks and whites, “is that they look in the mirror and they know how hard they’ve had to work. But they understand that they’ve not ‘made it’ in the same way as their white office mates.”

The resulting dissonance—harder work and longer hours to reach success, stress from discrimination that you can neither mistake nor prove—eventually manifests itself in the bodies of people like my dad. They don’t have time to take care of themselves, and even when they do, wellness is just not a priority. So as the white middle class has grown more healthy in recent decades, the tenuousness of black middle-class life has left many stumbling through a vicious circle. It’s harder for “bourgie” blacks to leverage the advantages of our nominal status, so we are more likely to be plagued by health problems associated with poverty, which in turn undermines our ability to sustain what class mobility we’ve eked out. Despite all of the material success he achieved in life, my father died deeply in debt, largely from unpaid taxes on the symbols of middle-class life he had once accumulated—a nice house, a nice car, his own business. By the time he got hold of his dream, he could no longer stay healthy enough to keep it .

The historically poor public health profile of people of African descent described as the “Slave Health Deficit” by Professor Vernellia Randall is indeed deeply rooted and has a profound impact on the public health profile of people of African descent. As I have clearly stated in earlier writings healthy food and high quality calories are critical to the creation of healthy communities and individuals. Likewise food is critical in ending the cycle of poor public health outcomes rooted in the experience of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Yet the issue is much more complicated than simply improving food access and security status of communities. Indeed it would be irresponsible to leave anyone with the opinion that if you only improve the food supply then all of the public health problems will be solved.

While it is beyond the scope of this short paper the other elements required to construct healthy and sustainable communities deserve some mention and include (but are not limited to) the following considerations:

• Socioeconomic status has a profound impact on public health outcomes and life expectancy.

• Perceived notions of inferiority and the real impact of oppression are interrelated to socioeconomic status and the resultant impact on health.

• The factors mentioned above contribute to increased levels of stress and high levels of stress have a known negative impact on health.

• Inequality expressed in the lack of an adequate public health delivery system in Black communities presents another factor in public health performance.

• Lifestyle and behavioral factors such as high levels of cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and addictions. All of these factors are exacerbated by feelings of low self esteem related to oppression and perceptions of social status; as well as the targeting of Black communities by advertisers of tobacco and alcohol products and the historical concentration of criminal elements on the community for narcotics sales.

What needs to be done:

• The creation of social and culture theories and practices to combat the negative impact of perceptions of social status and oppression.

• The development of a cultural system that incorporates stress reduction, exercise and healthy foodways into a desired set of sociocultural practices that become an integral part of Black life. This would be the functional equivalent of the traditional and indigenous health systems such as those of India, China or Tibet. The focus of the new multicultural and integrative health care will be prevention.

• An extension of these cultural practices would be the development of a multicultural system of integrative medicine and health practices that would be readily available in the community. The new multicultural and integrative health care system would be affordable for all and incorporated into any emerging health insurance and health care system. Included in the multicultural, integrative health care system would be treatment modalities such as chiropractic, naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, therapeutic massage therapies, nutrition counseling and exercise prescription including practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong as well as weight training (with an emphasis on correct form and injury prevention), walking, Pilates and other exercise modalities. The establishment and proliferation of comprehensive health care and exercise facilities is as big a priority as providing a variety of choices for high quality food and calories.

• The reintroduction of what was formerly called home economics into the education curriculum for all students. This curriculum change should be supplemented by the proliferation of cooking and nutrition classes (as well as other elements of healthy living) throughout a variety of sociocultural and educational institutions such as churches, community colleges and public libraries.

• Interrelated to all of the elements of food justice and the creation of healthy and sustainable communities is the need to create a sustainable ecological agricultural system that is both urban and rural. The emerging agricultural system will at its core be rooted in the green economy and be focused the triple bottom line – people, the planet and profit. As such a shift to local production when and where it is feasible is an imperative.

The local agricultural system becomes the key element in a food system that is fair, assessable and equitable. It also lends itself to a food system that creates new jobs, including new farmers in both urban and rural settings and makes it possible for those farmers to get a fair price for their products through the elimination of “middle men”. A system for capital formation is required that is fair and equitable that allows social groups that have been left out of the food system access to the resources required for success. This financing would be available for local food production and food preparation businesses that are the cornerstone of healthy communities.

Human Rights and Food Justice – The Conclusion

The quest for food justice is intimately related to the quest for universal human rights. In my estimation it is the gateway issue in the human rights agenda in that food (along with water, shelter and environmental integrity) is essential to the health and well being of all human beings. As activists, scholars and indeed members of the family of sentient beings we must insist that the human rights of all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or any other variable be realized and protected.

In the human rights universe food must no longer be used as an instrument of oppression and war. We must all insure that every person have access to not just adequate food but the high quality food and calories that are required for optimal growth and human development from before the cradle to the grave.

To that end I vow to spend the rest of my life working for human rights and food justice for all.