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First lady highlights new 'food oasis' at a Chicago Walgreens

By JERRY HAGSTROM

CHICAGO — First Lady Michelle Obama brought the issue of food deserts to her hometown on Tuesday, participating in a food summit organized by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.

Speaking at a Walgreens drug store on the South Side of Chicago that has added a food section, the first lady praised the corporations that have joined her campaign to make healthy food available in neighborhoods that have not had fresh fruits and vegetables available.

The first lady sandwiched her food desert stop between appearances at Democratic National Committee events in Detroit and Chicago, and her comments also revealed an awareness of the sensitivity of trying to change people’s eating habits as the presidential re-election campaign approaches. Interviews with store executives revealed both the corporate strategy behind the new food sections and the limitation of it.

“I’m so glad that we’re doing this here, at home, in Chicago,” the first lady said, thanking the Walgreens executives for expanding the food offerings in the store.

First Lady Michelle Obama
First Lady Michelle Obama
“In so many neighborhoods, if folks want to buy a head of lettuce for a salad, or some fruit for their kids’ lunch, they'd have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxi cab in order to do it, to go into a different community just to do the basics for their kids,” she said.

“And a lot of people don’t have the time, and quite frankly, they don’t have the money. That adds to the cost of doing the right thing for your family. So what we know in our shop is that we can talk all we want about making healthy choices, about the food we serve our kids, but the truth is if parents don’t have anywhere to buy these foods, then all of that is really just talk. And that’s something that I don’t like, is just talking about anything.”

The first lady said she was so pleased when corporations such as Walgreens and Walmart, SuperValu, Calhoun Grocer, Shoprite, ALDI and Roundy’s made plans to build or expand the offerings of healtheir foods, and that ALDI, a Chicago concern, has promised to buy foods from local farms.

She also praised non-profits and local governments for helping with the effort.

“We know that a company cannot just show up one day in a neighborhood and start building a supermarket," Obama said.

"They can’t just scout out an empty lot and start setting up a farmers market. They need to meet land use and licensing requirements. They need tax incentives that make it worth their while — their business interest to make it happen. They need public transportation that will bring customers to their doors. And most of all, they need to understand the needs of the community that they want to enter so that the people in those communities will come.”

The first lady also emphasized that stores with better food offerings could create jobs and be the anchors for other businesses.

But in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of conservative criticism that her “Let’s Move” campaign to convince people to eat healthier and get more exercise is part of a Democratic tendency towards a “nanny state,” she added, “It’s certainly not about government telling people what to do. That is not what ‘Let’s Move’ is about, and that’s not what anyone here is talking about.”

There was some disagreement among the invited crowd about whether the area Michelle Obama visited was really a food desert. Roderick Sawyer, the local Chicago alderman, said he considered it a middle-class area, and noted there were grocery stores about five minutes away by car.

But a map from a report on food deserts in Chicago had classified nearby areas as food deserts. The Walgreens store does accept supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits known as SNAP or food stamps.

Joe Magnacca, Walgreens
Joe Magnacca, Walgreens
In an interview, Joe Magnacca, president of daily living for Walgreens, said the company had decided to turn stores such as the one the first lady was visiting into “food oases” as part of its campaign to localize all its stories.

Magnacca said the conversion included adding a bigger health care section and hiring a nurse practitioner, because if a community “is underserved in food, it’s also underserved in medical care.”

The food attracts customers who also visit the health care section, and the improvement in the bottom line has been “unbelievable,” he said.

With 8,000 stores. Walgreens is the largest drug store chain in the nation, and is considering opening 1,000 food oasis stores.

Magnacca said Walgreens policy now is to respond to local demand, noting that customers of the Chicago store had asked for pickles and bigger sandwiches, so the store now sells submarines as well as those on smaller pieces of bread.