Emily Schiffer | Securing Food in Chicagoland

Schiffer chicagoland.jpg

Country of origin: United States
Project location: United States
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2011

This work depicts Chicago's urban agriculture movement in areas with limited access to healthy affordable food.

Approximately 384,000 Chicagoans live over 1 mile from the nearest supermarket, and have limited access to healthy affordable food in their neighborhoods. Well over 100,000 children live without access to healthy food.

Redlining, a prevalent real estate-investment practice in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 1970s, discouraged investment in minority and low income neighborhoods. This was compounded by deindustrialization and the resulting loss of jobs. Large areas in the South Side of Chicago remain to this date, under-developed and neglected.

The South Side has experienced a surge in urban farming and community gardening. I seek to photograph the intersection between neglect and self sufficency on Chicago's South Side.


On August 27, 2011, Emily spoke to Orrin Williams, Executive Director of The Center for Urban Transformation in Chicago, Illinois, and Emmanuel Pratt, Executive Director of The Sweet Water Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Director of the Aquaponics Program at Chicago State University.

Orrin and Emmanuel assisted Emily in shaping her understanding of food-insecurity, urban blight, and the history of racial segregation in Chicago while working on her project. Currently, she is collaborating with Orrin Williams and the Center for Urban Transformation, along with other community members and artists, on building a series of large-scale public installation pieces to bring community awareness and dialogue on the issue of food-insecurity in the South Side of Chicago.

Emily Schiffer: So let's start with you Orrin. Can you describe the food security situation in Chicago's South Side neighborhood?

Orrin Williams: Well, from my perspective it's really about how historically, people of African descent have been "food-insecure" since our arrival in the western hemisphere. Whether it was the plantation era, the Jim Crow era, or after the migrations, food access or food security has never been optimal. Now the discussion has really been ramped up with the notion of the 'food desert' after Mari Gallagher's research on food deserts in Chicago, so there are more policy considerations and more discussions about the issue. That said, we are concerned that the policy initiatives being proposed in the mainstream are inadequate and irrelevant to local economic development or community development. Basically, the policy initiatives mean bringing chain corporate entities into the community, which is just an extractive way of mining for the community's money. Just by bringing in grocery stores doesn't get to the issue surrounding public health. In fact, one can witness quite easily what happens when people go shopping, if they have no idea about what they should buy, how to cook, or don't have basic information about nutrition. Often times we see people spend $300 and not have any fresh produce in their carts. So it's much deeper and much more complex than the public can imagine.

Schiffer: So, I'm actually trying to avoid the term 'food desert' in my project because I believe it is a limiting way to envision the problems at hand. Can you go into more detail about the complexities of the situation?

Williams: Well, I don't like the term 'food deserts' myself because the notion of a food desert doesn't look at the complexities surrounding what people eat, how they eat, and how food cultures were created. In the case of people of African descent in this country, the cultural piece around food is racial and it comes straight out of slavery and the plantation.

For example, there is something called a "hoe cake." Sometimes people make fun of it and think it's a joke, but a hoe cake exists because people didn't have implements to cook with and they used a blade of a hoe to cook the corn meal cake. A lot of the food preparation around so-called "soul food" is based around the fact that people only had one pot; so you would put the meat, beans, greens, or whatever the case may be, in one pot. And for a lot of people that actually became a cultural piece around African-American food ways.

Emmanuel Pratt: Also tied into that are the investment choices. These neighborhoods that have been designated as "food deserts" actually have a lot of local grocery stores and businesses that were disinvested over the years, reinforcing its decline. The term "blight" is something that's particularly got me. I find it ironic because blight comes from the study of plants and paleontology and it's the cancer of a plant that makes it unable to sustain life. This term "blight" has been used to create ecologies of absence in areas that actually have local businesses.

Williams: In reference to that, one of those communities would be Englewood where we do a lot of work and where I grew up. There was a vibrant economy in that community and we never had to leave that community to buy anything that one typically needs. And then there was a period of time during the "malling" of America that led city planners to decide that the vibrant economy that existed at 63rd and Halsted was no longer going to be of essence to how communities function and that people wanted to go to malls. What they tried to create was a community-centered mall by closing off streets and creating parking, forcing people to walk through the stores. Thus what they did, in essence, was create an opportunity for that shopping district at 63rd and Halsted to go out of business. And at a certain point in history, while I was growing up, the Englewood community at 63rd and Halsted and that shopping in and around that area, was the second-highest level of economic activity in the state of Illinois, only behind Downtown. So now, back to Emmanuel's point, those kinds of opportunities have been essentially stripped away.

Schiffer: And how does that correlate with the development of housing projects, and are they linked at all in terms of the timeline?

Pratt: From the '30s up until the '50s, there was an actual design for public housing developments. They were usually low-level, one to two-level, sturdy, strong, reinforced concrete, or what-have-you. But once we started shifting the growth to the suburbs, inner-city decay and the fear of the inner-city increased. There was a verticalization in the structures, and more poor, black, low-income, and minorities were allocated into one set area. So for example the Robert Taylor public housing development is a four mile-long stretch of housing.

Williams: Well there are several public housing developments that are this large.

Pratt: Yes, several of them. And over time, they were kind of forgotten about; I mean part of this is all talked about in Chicago's history. But "blight" has been the term that justified the demolition of most of the housing. So "they're blighted properties, which can no longer sustain economic viability," "there's too much crime," "it's overcrowded" or even "under-populated" somehow. Any justification will do to demolish these areas, and in this process the schools close, the grocery stores close, local businesses close, and then you're left with these mass pockets of land that are just empty and vacant for years.

Williams: Yeah and I mean Emmanuel's being nice about it. In Chicago, it really was about maintaining poor black populations in a certain order. It was designed to make sure the notion of public housing was not spread across the city and would not interfere with the segregated nature of the city of Chicago.

Schiffer: Can you talk more about the segregated nature of the city, about isolation, and the effect of the isolation that comes with segregation in Chicago.

Williams: Chicago is known as one of the most segregated cities in the United States. No house exists on the block that I grew up on. Some of the vacant lots that we played ball on fifty years ago are still vacant. And of course the vacancy rate has increased exponentially since then. The issue is the lack of any kind of initiative that aims to empower black folks economically. I mean, even during the civil rights era, there were many tracks involved in that. The one that got the most press was this notion of integration (which I have no problem with, except of course that only black folks were supposed to integrate) and it maintained the historical lack of access to financial resources. I mean, you're talking about redlining communities; you're talking about communities where people work at night; you know, mortgages where there's been a predatory lending system in place virtually since black folks began coming to the north and into Chicago; and you're still talking about lack of access to any kind of financial loans and stocks.

We know that many folks of African descent who applied for mortgages with proper qualifications for regular mortgages that were given predatory lending packages; and we know that black folk own very little wealth but most of the wealth they did own was tied up in real estate. We watched the demise of a people's wealth based upon how the housing market had been revalued. So I mean, nothing has changed historically; you can't quibble with the fact that folks of African descent were brought here as a way to make money, as a source of labor; and ultimately, according to a whole bunch of folks including my own analysis, they comprise the backbone of the capitalist system in this country without ever being able to benefit from it. And again, during the civil rights era, the folks that controlled the agenda in terms of black folk opted for "jobs." "Jobs" are not economic justice, "jobs" are not social justice, and there's something important to be taken away from that.

Schiffer: Can you define health and what health entails beyond just food?

Pratt: Health is really mind-body-spirit education. I mean what else would health be?! It's the bigger picture, it's much more holistic. We spent three weeks with IBM for Smarter Cities for a Smarter Planet, and our theme was "Smarter Cities Feeding Themselves" and after three weeks they said "wow, it's much bigger than just food." It's about having exposure to a lot of opportunities that typically people are not exposed to; it's about having solid experiential education that actually makes people think creatively and in an innovative way and having people to come together around those innovations; and ultimately it is about food we eat. Like I said, it's a much more holistic approach.

Emily Schiffer is a photographer and mixed media artist interested in the intersection between art, community engagement, and social change.

She is a Co-founder and Creative Director of We, Women, the largest social impact photography project by women in the United States.

In 2005, she founded the My Viewpoint Youth Photography Initiative on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where she continues to teach and shoot. In 2011 she co-created See Potential, a community engagement/ public art project that installs documentary images on abandoned buildings to illustrate economic development initiatives of community leaders on the South Side of Chicago. In 2014 she co-created Danube Revisited: The Inge Morath Truck Project, a photographic road trip and travelling exhibition in which a 2T truck was converted into a mobile gallery and driven along the length of the Danube River through Central and Eastern Europe.

Emily holds a BA (cum laude) in Fine Art and African American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MFA in Art from the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design.