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One Man's Mission to Feed a 'Food Desert'

What lessons a black entrepreneur's attempts to end a 'food desert' in his community mean for ending Rockford's. 

Robbins, Illinois is a once thriving African-American community south of Chicago that today is anything but thriving. Basketball player Dwayne Wade grew up here. So did Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols. They're gone -- and so are many black professionals who left looking for a better life by leaving Robbins' urban blight behind -- creating one of the longest-lasting 'food deserts' in the nation.

As we showed you on Wednesday, a 'food desert' is an area where residents do not have reasonable access to fresh food, especially fruits and vegetables. Rockford's west side has a large food desert, and all of Robbins is one. The city hasn't had a grocery store in more than forty-four years.

But that will soon end, because on a Robbins downtown street under a giant balloon right next to an abandoned house sits Omega Tax Service. It's a business owned by an entrepreneur determined to become a rare breed -- an African-American who owns a grocery store.

"There are about 5 or 6 African-American supermarkets in the entire country," Darrel Mitchel tells me from his office, and he knows because he is going to be the next one, building a large supermarket right next to his tax office. A state of the art 55-thousand square foot food store and urban garden will not only feed a community but employ them as well. It will create 60 permanent jobs and 150 temporary and construction jobs while sowing the seeds of economic growth.

"When you bring an anchor supermarket," he tells me, "then everything else is going to follow. A clothing store ... an exercise place. People have to understand concentrate on the anchor and everything else will follow"

But as the sign announcing the planned store which says it was supposed to open in the fall of 2012 shows, getting started is no easy task. It may be behind schedule, but Mitchel is determined to get it done. "A supermarket is not a small mom-and-pop operation. It is a big operation and it requires capital."

So Mitchel has websites and powerpoints and videos which have lured investors, and he has something else just as important -- Community and local government support. So can what Mitchell will build here in Robbins also work in west Rockford? He says it can if you know where to start. He adds that economic development will continue to elude west Rockford until the supermarkets come back. "That should be the first mainstay. If you don't have a supermarket, something to address that basic need, then everything else ... it's not going to work."

So Rockford's challenge is whether our community can come together to build a new oasis in our food desert. Saturday morning on WNTA radio 105.5FM, I'm going to have a community discussion on my 'Rockford Raps' program. It airs beginning at 8am. I hope you'll me.

And also please click on the link below if you want to join our petition seeking an end to Rockford's food desert. We won't use any information other than your name, and your e-mail address will only be used to keep you posted on developments.

http://mystateline.com/food-desert
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