Ultra Foods closing in Calumet Park leaves void
Residents react June 20, 2017, to the closing of the Ultra Foods grocery store in Calumet Park. The high poverty south suburb is left with limited grocery options. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
The only traditional grocery store in south suburban Calumet Park is closed, half the shopping center sits vacant and prospects for any quick solutions appear bleak.
A handwritten sign on the door of the recently shuttered Ultra Foods directs would-be shoppers to Strack & Van Til stores in Indiana, another chain owned by the bankrupt Central Grocers cooperative. Little good that will do the many low-income and elderly people, particularly those without cars, who for years did their shopping at Ultra.
"It’s a huge, crippling thing to this community," said Mayor Ronald Denson, 67, who has lived in the 2-square-mile village about 18 miles south of Chicago’s Loop for 34 years.
Grocery stores come and go, but in some communities, the losses hurt more and heal slower.
Calumet Park is a predominantly African-American community with high poverty and few other grocery shopping options. In total, 12 Ultra Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs and northwest Indiana have closed to date, in addition to two Strack & Van Til stores, part of the demise of the almost-100-year-old Central Grocers cooperative based in Joliet.
Last month, Jewel-Osco announced plans to buy 19 of Central Grocers’ Strack & Van Til stores in Indiana and continue operations in those locations. But there was no such reprieve for communities served by the Ultra Foods stores.
"It’s very disappointing. It’s going to make our area a food desert, almost," said Keshie Fuzzell, 51, as she walked out of an Aldi store situated in the same strip mall as the shuttered Calumet Park Ultra.
Many former Ultra shoppers will buy groceries at Aldi now out of necessity, though Fuzzell and other shoppers on a recent afternoon said the smaller store has a much more limited selection of fresh produce and meat than Ultra did. Beyond that, there’s only a smattering of corner stores in Calumet Park and a Jewel-Osco in Chicago 2 miles north.
The "food desert" label generally means a low-income area with limited access to healthy food, though how exactly that’s defined can vary. Even before the Ultra closing, large swaths of Calumet Park were designated as both low-income and low-access, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas, a map that uses census estimates to determine areas lacking sufficient access to grocery stores.
Vehicle access is also a key factor in determining whether an area is low-access, because most Americans, even poor people, drive to the store to buy groceries, said Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
In one Calumet Park census tract, more than 21 percent of households lack access to a vehicle and live more than a half-mile from a supermarket — "a really high share" compared to the 4.2 percent of all U.S. households that fit the same criteria, Ver Ploeg said.
Calumet Park never fully developed its two primary commercial strips on 127th Street and Ashland Avenue, and over time has seen the number of retail businesses on those streets decline along with its population, said Mari Gallagher, a commercial retail consultant who’s studied the issue of food access in the Chicago area for years. Gallagher called Calumet Park a "retail no-man’s land."
"Because retail attracts retail of a similar quality, and as many parts of Calumet Park are in decline, they have had trouble attracting enough quality retailers, including grocers," said Gallagher, principal of the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group.
Ultra Foods closed this month and the options for fresh food are slim in the suburb of Calumet Park. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Some believe corner stores — long maligned as outposts of booze and junk food — can make a meaningful difference in communities like Calumet Park.
The Cook County Public Health Department and the prevention program Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children have partnered to provide technical and marketing support to 27 corner stores in suburban Cook County in an effort to boost the amount of healthy food in low-income communities.
Jordan Food Mart in Calumet Park is one of those stores. Luay Madain, a native of Jordan, said the Ultra closing is bad for the community but possibly a boon to his own business.
Madain acknowledged the challenges of selling healthy food in a corner store. Customers in a recent late afternoon rush mostly bought liquor and lottery tickets, not cabbage and bell peppers. Earlier the same day, he had to throw out 10 pounds of bananas that had spoiled.
"I don’t make any money on these things to be honest with you," Madain said of the produce.
Still, the 40-year-old Madain said he believes that by reopening his meat counter, which he shut down a year ago, and expanding his selection of fresh produce this summer, his store can become more of a one-stop shop. That could be good for both the neighborhood and his bottom line, he said.
While a corner store won’t replace a full-scale grocery store like Ultra Foods, it can be part of the solution, said Adam Becker, executive director of the obesity prevention consortium.
"We’d be excited if corner stores could pick up some of the slack in Calumet Park," Becker said.
Not everyone shares that optimism, however.
"If most of the business is alcohol, how many people are going to go in there looking for apples and oranges?" Mayor Denson said.
Only another large grocery store will fill the void left by Ultra Foods, Denson said. Already, the village has laid off two employees, including the finance director, to help offset the $200,000 a year or so in lost tax revenue, he said.
At the Calumet Township Community Center, which mostly serves the area’s senior citizens, the Ultra closing has been the topic of conversation lately over bingo. The center provides seniors with regular transportation for grocery shopping and made an average of 35 trips a month to Ultra before it closed, said Paul Hollock, the community center’s chief of operations.
"I’ll hear them say, ‘What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?’" Hollock said. "It’s a huge loss."