First lady Michelle Obama said Tuesday that parents can't be expected to give their children healthy food if they don't have good options for groceries nearby.
Obama, who is leading a nationwide effort to lower childhood obesity rates, spoke at a Chicago Walgreens store that had expanded to include fresh produce and grocery staples. She called it an example for other parts of the city and the country.
"We can talk all we want about making healthy choices about the food we serve our kids, but the truth is that if parents don't have anywhere to buy these foods, then all of that is really just talk," Obama said.
Walgreen Co. has tested about a dozen such stores in Chicago and plans to add 19 more soon. They look like mini-grocery stores added onto a traditional pharmacy, with aisles of fresh fruits, vegetables, bagged salads, eggs and milk. There are also pre-made salads and sandwiches for on-the-go meals. Store employees said the fresh food has been popular with customers.
Keica Abrams, who has been a customer for about two decades, called it "imperative" for the store to have fresh vegetables and fruits. She said she's diabetic and once when her blood sugar was low at the store, she had an apple and juice to get it regulated.
The addition of the grocery also gives parents healthy options for their children, she said.
Obama's address was the closing remarks to a mayors' summit on expanding urban food options. She challenged the mayors to look for ways to attract grocery stores and other businesses selling fresh produce for communities in need.
The first lady announced in July that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Supervalu Inc., and other retailers plan over the next five years to open or expand 1,500 stores in areas without easy access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods. She has said 24 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in such areas nationwide.
The number of Chicago residents without access to fresh food has declined nearly 40 percent in five years, but more than 380,000 of the city's 2.7 million residents still live in areas with few or no grocery stores, according to a report this week by the Chicago-based Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group.
Most of the pockets with few or no grocery stores are on Chicago's South and West sides, including neighborhoods around the Walgreens store where Obama spoke.
Researcher Mari Gallagher said expanded pharmacies are a good first step, but they don't replace grocery stores.
"It's not where you would get your regular three squares, but it will help those that are in a pinch," she said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced 17 grocery stores will open in the Chicago area to help address the lack of access to fresh food. Some will sell foods from urban farms, he said.
Emanuel has made eliminating so-called food deserts _ areas with few or no grocery stores _ a focus since he took office in May. However, several projects were in the works before he took office, including a task force of city officials and major grocers committed to opening stores on the South and West sides.
Advocates do credit Emanuel with bringing a new energy to the issue. He's promoted urban farming and brought together mayors on the issue. Those at the summit were from cities including Somerville, Mass., Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Baltimore.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen