By Kadesha Thomas
Photos by Beth Rooney

When it comes to vegetables, bigger does not necessarily mean better. A glossy shine is not a good thing either, but locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables are always best, said Bruce Moore, an organic farmer from La Porte, Ind.

Moore is one of several vendors who sells produce Saturday mornings at the Bronzeville Community Market, which was created to provide much needed, convenient access to fresh produce for Bronzeville’s 78,000 residents.

“You see this,” said Moore, extending a bruised, but firm, deep-red tomato to a small group of customers. “This is a good way to tell if they are homegrown. The dirtier and uglier they are, the better.”

Now in its second year, the Bronzeville market has found a new co-sponsor: the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center’s community outreach arm, Community Engagement Centering on Solutions. It’s a natural affiliation, given the link between good food and good health, said Rick Kittles, Associate Director of Community Relations for the Cancer Research Center.

“Early on, when we started CECOS, one of the issues that constantly emerged from the South Side community was getting more information on nutrition and access to healthy eating,” Kittles said. “Here we have an environment right in the middle of the Bronzeville area, which is considered a food desert. So, we’re excited to co-sponsor a market that brings access to healthy food to the community.”

An Oasis in ‘Food Desert’

Kittles, Associate Professor in Genetic Medicine at the University, has lived in the Bronzeville area for three years. He noticed that the South Side has few grocers that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. According to a community food survey published last year by the Quad Communities Development Corporation, only 6 percent of Bronzeville residents buy produce locally, while the rest bypass local, low-end grocers to shop elsewhere, or skip eating fruits and vegetables altogether.

The food desert could be one reason why the number of people who die from heart disease and cancer in South Side communities is higher than the Chicago average.

“One of the things that contributes to poor health is poor diet,” Kittles said. “People should be appalled and upset about the lack of food choices, but people don’t even realize it because they are so used to it.”

CECOS co-sponsors the farmers market with the Quad Communities Development Corporation, a local non-profit organization focused on business development in four service communities—Grand Boulevard, North Kenwood, Oakland and Douglass—that make up the greater Bronzeville community.

Each week, about 300 shoppers stop by the produce market. Some use $1 coupons, which have been distributed to seniors at assisted-living facilities and to young people at summer camps.

“We meet new people every week who are excited for the market to be there,” said Zuri Thompson, market manager for QCDC. “Overall, it has been a success.”

Groups Help Get Word Out

However, Kittles said getting young people to shop at the market has been a challenge. “Young folks just haven’t been socialized to patronize farmers markets or good grocery stores. They are more used to going to the mom-and-pop shops to get chips,” he said.

To educate the younger generation about alternatives, six local high school students are working as interns at the market and promoting it to their peers, many of whom have never shopped there. “A lot of the young people ask questions because they just don’t know,” Moore said. “A lot of the older people are from the South, so they already know what they are doing.”

Brenda Hasbrouck said she shops at the market weekly after her morning “power walk,” because the food selection is familiar. “My family had a lot of land in Virginia. The vegetables here taste just like what I ate growing up.

Before coming to the market, “I had some tomatoes I bought from the store,” Hasbrouck said while knocking on a huge watermelon. “But I threw them out after I ate one from here.”

The Bronzeville Community Market, located at 4400 S. Cottage Grove Ave., will continue operating on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 31.

Originally published on September 14, 2009.