As the momentum to mitigate food insecurity continues to unfold, we need a stronger emphasis on ensuring better food sanitation and safety in economically disadvantaged and under-resourced communities. For example, the closing of 400 Dollar General Stores in several states and a grocery store closure on Chicago’s West side due to rodent infestation are of concern, especially for communities who are already dealing with food deserts and food insecurity. According to the U.S. Departure of Agriculture, 53.6 million U.S residents experience limited access to affordable and healthy food. Communities of color and low-income communities tend to be hardest hit. As the cost of food continues to soar during this period of inflation and food security remains problematic, it is not surprising that individuals with limited income and those living in food deserts may rely on dollar stores or smaller food outlets to purchase food.
Although there is a national movement to address food security issues in high-risk communities, more needs to be done to ensure the safe handling, storage, and selling of food items in stores that lack robust preventive and surveillance measures in between formal food inspections. For example, on the south and west sides of Chicago, many households face challenges in affording sufficient food and places to buy food. Individuals residing in these areas frequently depend on places like the Dollar General Stores and other small food outlets to purchase food. The problem of poor sanitation and what this means for finding food that is safe to eat is especially troubling on Chicago’s south and west sides. Publically available food inspection data from 2018 to the present from the Chicago Department of Public Health reveals that neighborhoods already struggling to purchase enough food and have limited options where they can buy food experience a higher percentage of failed food inspections compared to communities in more affluent neighborhoods.
As advocates for health equity, we believe there may be value in applying some of the lessons learned from Chicago’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic to the issue of food sanitation and safety in high-risk communities. To illustrate, in response to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color in Chicago, elected officials, community leaders, and advocates established the Racial Equity Response Team (RERRT). Local government and community leaders collaborated to identify high-risk communities and strategically instituted measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They equipped communities of color with education, free personal protective equipment, supplies, and free testing. This community-centered approach, focused on prevention, testing, treatment, and supportive care, was instrumental in saving lives and mitigating the impact of the pandemic in communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Akin to COVID contract tracing efforts, one way to identify high-risk communities is by mapping failed food inspections and supplying needed resources to address shortcomings. While larger food stores may be able to absorb the cost of conducting more frequent internal food inspections and ensuring remediation, this may not be the case for some of the small food chains and neighborhood stores that operate with less staff and resources. While formal food inspections are essential, stronger preventive measures are critical to alleviating the high percentages of failed food inspections in low-income and communities of color. Thus, resources to bolster education regarding more rigorous safe food handling, storage, and surveillance could prove beneficial in communities impacted by poor food sanitation.
Chicago needs to pay attention to food safety and consider the ways that the City can work with businesses and communities to make needed improvements. The higher rates of failed food inspections on the South and West sides should be a call to action to treat food safety as an equity issue. Chicago already has a Food Equity Council, and one of its priorities is to “support BIPOC food businesses and entrepreneurs.” The Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) highlights food businesses as part of its success stories. Chicago could take lessons learned from its COVID response and do more about food safety from a prevention and community-centered standpoint.
Just as there is an urgency to address food security, we must intensify efforts to ensure that all individuals, regardless of zip code or economic standing, have access to fresh and safe foods. Food sanitation and safety is an under-recognized aspect of food security and should be viewed through an equity lens similar to the COVID-19 pandemic or any other public health priority. Does Chicago need a rapid response to food sanitation and safety? We think so. Other places where communities face poor food sanitation and safety could potentially benefit from such a response as well. Anything less jeopardizes efforts to ensure the equitable distribution of and access to one of life’s most basic human needs, food.
Janice Phillips is an associate professor of nursing. John Mazzeo is an associate professor of public health.
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