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Pritzker signs $20 million program into law to help eradicate food deserts across Illinois

Pritzker, surrounded by state lawmakers and local politicians, signs the Illinois Grocery Initiative.
The Office of the Illinois Governor
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, signs the Illinois Grocery Initiative into law on Friday in the Metro East community of Venice. Pritzker is flanked by state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, far left; state Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Collinsville, (in blue); Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, second from right, and Sen. Chris Belt, D-East St. Louis, far right.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Illinois Grocery Initiative into law on Friday — a $20 million state program to invest in local grocery stores across the state to curb food deserts and food insecurity.

“Too often residents have to cross county lines — sometimes state lines — to pick up bread, milk and produce,” said Pritzker, who signed the bill in Venice, a Metro East town of around 1,500 along the Mississippi river. The entirety of Venice sits in a food desert, more than a mile from a store or supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We know that without access to healthful foods, people living in food deserts remain at higher risk of diet related conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” said Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols.

Part of Pritzker’s budget proposal this year, this initiative will support existing grocers and encourage new stores to open in underserved parts of the state through incentive opportunities and grants through the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development.

The program could also help local governments attract a small independent grocer or fund upgrades to aging equipment.

“A grocery store anchored in and run by people in the neighborhood is more likely to survive,” Pritzker said.

More than 3 million Illinoisans — a quarter of the state's population — live in a food desert, according to a 2021 study from the state Department of Public Health. Pritzker said countless more residents are just one local grocery store closing away from joining those 3 million.

A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah. While Mascoutah is included in areas that can be surveyed for the Consumer Price Index, counties without a town of at least 10,000 people are not eligible.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A shopper peruses selections of fresh produce at Betty Ann Market in Mascoutah, Illinois. The new program aims to help open grocery stores like this one in underserved parts of the state — rural or urban.

In the Metro East, there are scattered pockets of food deserts. Much of the region immediately east of the Mississippi River, like East St. Louis, Cahokia Heights and Madison, all have clusters. Large portions of Pontoon Beach that stretch all the way north to Alton also qualify, according to the USDA.

It’s not just an urban issue, either. State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, said one of the counties he represents in southern Illinois doesn’t have a grocer.

“Yes, an entire county in the 59th District, that I represent, does not have one single grocery store,” Fowler said.

The Illinois Senate passed the bill unanimously this year, and it passed the House with 96-17 support.

“If we truly are what we eat, then the return on investment of this program should be astronomical,” said Sen. Chris Belt, D-Swansea, who co-sponsored the bill. “Let's eradicate food deserts and build strong communities.”

Kristin Richards, director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said the initiative will also fund a study to explore reasons for market declines, historical disparities for food access, geographic trends and more.

“Unfortunately, the number of food deserts in this area and in Illinois is accelerating,” said Richards, a native of Belleville. “Working families in our communities here in the Metro East and throughout the state should not have to struggle to access healthy produce.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.