In Chicago, A Plan To Quench 'Food Deserts'
NATALIE MOORE: I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago, where food deserts are so prevalent an unlikely store is trying to do something about it.
(Soundbite of store)
MOORE: Cups of watermelon chunks and pineapples line the cooler shelves. Next to the fruit are fresh spinach, avocados, green beans and sweet potatoes. And I'm standing at Walgreens. Yep, the pharmacy Walgreens. The national chain is piloting fresh food centers at several stores on the south and west sides of Chicago.
Customer Robert May(ph) says he used to gravitate toward the high-sugar packaged foods. Now he's a bit more health conscious as he grabs a fresh Caesar salad.
Mr. ROBERT MAY: This food is nutrients for me because what I've been eating is a lot of doughnuts, Hostess ding dongs, cupcakes and stuff like that. So I was grabbing the cookies. I was eating, like, a lot of junk food. And so now that they have this and they have the fruits, I'm now eating the foods that I, you know, that will be better for me.
MOORE: May says he has to shop at the south side Walgreens because he doesn't have a car and there's no mainstream grocer nearby.
Brain Pugh is vice president of merchandising at Walgreens. He sees when it comes to fresh food, the chain saw an opportunity.
Mr. BRIAN PUGH (Vice President of Merchandising, Walgreens): Areas, no matter if you're in Chicago or in Los Angeles, Oakland, Detroit, all have similarities, meaning grocers in the last 15 years have pulled out of some of those areas. And in a lot of cases, we can be more of a grocer play in those areas.
MOORE: Pugh says Walgreens isn't aiming to be a full service grocery store, but one Chicago store has already dedicated 40 percent of its space to food.
Four more food centers will here at the end of August, bringing the number to 10 in Chicago. Company officials aren't releasing any profit targets yet, but they say the chain plans to expand the fresh food center to about 400 stores across the country in the next few years.
Mari Gallagher is a Chicago-based researcher whose specialty is studying food deserts. She welcomes the Walgreens foray into healthier foods.
Ms. MARI GALLAGHER (Food Desert Researcher): A pharmacy, for example, where people go anyway to get their prescriptions filled and to pick up different items, if they can also pick up something healthy to eat while they're there, we think that that's a good thing. They are not a grocery store and they likely don't want to ever be a grocery store but they can offer healthy food.
MOORE: Gallagher says the convenience factor contributes to people's food choices.
Ms. GALLAGHER: The convenience food factor means that people shop for food most regularly at the places closest to them, even though they might desire or require for medical reasons healthier, but more distant, food. We turn to the kinds of stores around us to buy food, whether they're healthy places or not.
MOORE: And in food deserts, the grocery alternatives tend to processed foods or corner stores with paltry offerings.
Walgreens is capitalizing the convenience factor in a different way. But Gallagher says it's not just low income residents living in food deserts. She says 13 percent are in households earning more than $100,000 a year.
(Soundbite of store)
MOORE: Store manager Bridget James(ph) says her Walgreens location has had a food center for a month.
Ms. BRIDGET JAMES (Store Manager, Walgreens): A lot of customers are (unintelligible) that we are actually selling produce. They can't thank me enough that they're glad it's in here. They can do a one-stop shop. So, you know, a lady yesterday she normally used to buy pizzas and now I saw her picking up some broccoli and some carrots and she had some potatoes.
Unidentified Woman: $3.80 is your change.
MOORE: As Robert May prepares to check out with his salad, he does go back and get the packaged cupcake, too. He sheepishly admits it's one of his vices.
For NPR News, I'm Natalie Moore in Chicago.