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The Dangers of Rockford's Vast 'Food Desert'

The foremost expert on 'food desert' talks about how Rockford's and others take years off the lives of its residents.

ROCKFORD -- By Mike Williams/Special Correspondent

Several weeks ago, I attended Mayor Larry Morrissey's State of the City address where he spoke of pride about the plan to rebuild west State St. He called a it a 'gateway to the city,' and my first reaction was, 'gateway to what?'

West State isn't a high traffic gateway. Its value is as a center of commerce for the West Side community -- and right now -- there isn't much commerce. It's a collection of some shops and stores -- and plenty of people -- but not one single major grocery store. What experts call a 'food desert.'

Mari Gallagher is a consultant and expert on 'food deserts.' I met her in her office in Chicago, where she told me, "There is food in the food desert, but not necessarily nutritious food, and that's what we're working toward." Working towards combating food deserts, which are areas without a grocer who serves fresh food. She says food deserts are more than inconvenient; they're life changing. "We can actually predict how much life lost in the future because of the absense of a good grocer," she told me.

West Rockford is a typical food desert. While the east side has plenty of major grocery store options -- Logli, Highlander, Valli Foods, Target, Wal-Mart -- and even two proposed giant Meijer stores three miles apart from each other, west Rockford has just one -- an Aldi on Auburn Street. People who live in poverty still need fresh food, so why are there so few fresh food options here?

Mari says, "We see food deserts because historically, there has been segregation, and then folks as they have developed more means regardless of their race have moved out and the grocers have in some cases moved out with them but have not been replaced." In other words -- food deserts form not because of a lack of population, but because of a lack of business development. We can repave all the streets we want on the west side, but until we do the things necessary to bring in business, nothing here will change. Experts such as Mari say just one strategically placed grocery store in a food desert, however, can make all the difference. "Surprisingly, Those grocers going in (to food deserts) attracting other grocers because retail attracts retail and like attracts like in either a positive or negative direction."

Another person with a unique perspective on 'food deserts' agrees. "You grow a town by bringing in business first, and once you bring in business, the rooftops will come." His name is Darrell Mitchell, a young black entrepreneur is writing the blueprint for solving a community's food desert problem. More on his story in part two of our special report Thursday night.

We're also recruiting those who care about this issue to sign an online petition. The information you provide outside of your name will not be shared with anyone else, but will be used to inform you about things happening as we work together to help end Rockford's 'food desert' problem. You can find the online form at the link below.

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