CHICAGO HEIGHTS | State Rep. Anthony DeLuca wants to take on the issue of “food deserts” in large part because he sees how the problem impacts his home city.
DeLuca sees how the city he once served as mayor has two supermarkets, an Ultra Foods and a Food for Less, on its western border, and several ethnic markets catering mostly to a Mexican-American population throughout the city limits.
But in Chicago Heights’ predominantly black east side, there are no markets within walking distance for those people who don’t have easy access to an automobile. Those people either have to rely on Pace suburban bus routes, or figure out some other form of transportation when they shop.
With that in mind, DeLuca sponsored a bill in the Illinois House addressing the problem. The bill would let certain municipalities offer unlimited property tax abatements to food markets that locate in areas where the nearest supermarket is at least one mile away in urban areas, or 10 miles away in rural parts of Illinois.
DeLuca said he hopes this would be enough of an incentive to get companies operating supermarkets to do business in communities they currently are ignoring.
In the case of his home city, DeLuca said he’d like it if the existing grocery chains would consider opening second stores on the east side of town.
“It could mean even more business for them if they’d reach out to the whole city,” he said.
But DeLuca says he knows there are many communities across Chicago, its suburbs and rural areas where there is not easy access to a supermarket.
A 2011 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined that about 550,000 of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents lived in food deserts, with about 70 percent of those residents being in predominantly black neighborhoods. Statewide, about 4 percent of Illinois’ 12.9 million residents live distant from grocery stores, according to a 2006 study by Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group.
DeLuca also said he thinks his tax abatement idea is preferable to other proposals put forth by activists who want to improve grocery access to low-income neighborhoods.
“I wouldn’t support something like a government-run store,” he said.
DeLuca is not the only political person in recent days to bring up the issue.
When the Chicago City Council last week approved a measure banning plastic bag use by supermarket chains for environmental reasons, some aldermen brought up the issue of inner-city neighborhoods lacking such stores.
That led Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sponsored a Food Desert Summit nearly three years ago, to say he thinks governments should take an interest in the issue of having the major supermarket chains locate in all neighborhoods.
Those companies, Emanuel said, “don’t get to cherry-pick what neighborhoods they want to do business in.”
Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush said her municipality already has offered some tax incentives to attract various restaurants and the Pete’s Fresh Market store on the west side of the city, while still trying to fill a vacant storefront that once was a Sterk’s Super Foods store.
“Any assistance the state could give us toward that goal would be appreciated,” she said.
But Charles Griffin, village president of Ford Heights, said there also are issues related to income and property taxes “that are a disincentive to doing business” in the south suburbs.
He cited the fact that most retail, including local supermarkets, are in Indiana communities such as Dyer and Schereville.
“The moment you cross over the state line, there’s nothing in Lynwood,” Griffin said. “Anything that would help bring business of any kind to the area would be good.”
DeLuca’s food desert effort, if it passes, would not be the first by Illinois state government. In 2009, the Fresh Food Fund was created as part of the Illinois Jobs Now! program. It provided $10 million overall to encourage construction of grocery stores in urban areas.
But DeLuca said his effort, aside from being statewide, would encourage grocery stores to locate long-term in communities because they would get the tax abatements so long as they stay in business.
“We don’t want companies taking advantage of the tax incentives, then fading off,” he said.
Whether DeLuca will succeed in getting his tax incentives bill enacted into law anytime soon has yet to be determined.
The bill has yet to be assigned to an Illinois House committee for review, and DeLuca admits there are only four weeks remaining until the General Assembly adjourns May 31 for a summer break.
Even if the bill does not get consideration in coming weeks, DeLuca said he intends to continue to pursue the idea, either in the fall session or in future years.
“I haven’t totally given up on something happening in the spring, but we may run out of time,” DeLuca said. “That doesn’t mean the problem is going away.”