Bill to address Illinois ‘food deserts’ could grow union jobs

Illinois Correspondent

Shopping bag full of healthy food on blue background.

A proposal to expand access to healthy food in so-called “food deserts” may bring more union jobs to East St. Louis.

Senate Bill 850 would direct the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to establish a “grocery initiative,” studying urban and rural food deserts to help identify areas at risk of losing their access to fresh food. State Sen. Christopher Belt (D-East St. Louis) sponsored the bill after East St. Louis lost its Save-a-Lot in April. At the same time, Cahokia Heights lost its Walmart, leaving one Schnucks and Aldi for that area.

“By supporting the establishment and expansion of grocery stores in underserved areas, the bill aims to bridge the gap in food accessibility, ensuring that all Illinois residents have access to fresh, affordable and nutritious options,” he told FarmWeek. “Not only would this promote better health outcomes, but it would also enhance the overall quality of life within the communities in need, as well as supporting our local Illinois farmers.”

Jeffrey Collier is union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers, and he wants to make sure these efforts include giving union workers fair wages.

“We are definitely trying to support (the bill) so it will pass,” Collier said. “We’re there to make sure these grocery stores pay a fair wage and benefits.” That in turn helps support the community, where often the only food one can buy is in a convenience store.

Food deserts are defined as low-income communities at least half a mile from a grocery store in an urban area and 10 miles away in rural areas. Approximately one in four Illinois residents lives in a food desert where it is difficult to get fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy, according to a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Approximately 9.4 percent of Illinois households report sometimes or often not having enough food to eat over a seven-day period as of last month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among families of color, the rates are  as high as 14-18 percent.

To qualify as a grocery store, the retail establishment must make its primary business selling food including fresh produce, gets no more than 30 percent of its revenue from alcohol and tobacco, accepts SNAP and other such benefit programs, and so on.

The grants in the bill will allow the state to study food deserts, and also to provide financial assistance to independently owned grocery stories and those operated by local governmental units.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposed budget calls for $20 million to fund the program.

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