Walgreen Co. is unveiling its new expanded food selection at 10 stores in several Chicago communities identified as "food deserts," or areas that lack access to basic foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet.

Walgreens, Chicago, food selection, food deserts, food oasis, South Side, drug store, Mark Wagner, Richard Daley, Russell Redman, Northwestern Medicine, Near North Health Service, Diabetes Collaborative, grocery, fresh food, Duane Reade, Jim Jensen, Delish, food and beverage

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Walgreens launches 'food oases' in Chicago

August 11th, 2010

DEERFIELD, Ill. – Walgreen Co. is unveiling its new expanded food selection at 10 stores in several Chicago communities identified as "food deserts," or areas that lack access to basic foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet.

The drug store chain said Wednesday that it has redesigned 10 of its stores on Chicago's South Side and West Side to include more than 750 new food items, including fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen meat and fish, pasta, rice, beans, eggs, whole grain cereals and other healthy meal components.

According to Walgreens, the expanded food selection is available now at six of the stores and will be launched at the other four locations by the end of this month.

"We immediately made a commitment to seek solutions for offering these communities more fresh and healthy food options," Mark Wagner, executive vice president of operations and community management at Walgreens, said in a statement. "Walgreens has taken great pride in meeting the needs of Chicago communities since opening our first store on the city's South Side 109 years ago. Today, we couldn't be more pleased to provide additional basic staples that will inevitably help improve health outcomes for many in these previously underserved communities."

Walgreens said that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 600,000 Chicago residents live in neighborhoods that are lacking grocery stores or are too far away from them. The drug chain said that last spring it received an appeal from Chicago mayor Richard Daley for help in addressing the food desert problem.

"This is a great step forward in addressing the challenge of neighborhoods that have limited availability of healthy foods," Daley said in a statement, "and I want to thank Walgreens for its commitment to making Chicago a better place and helping Chicagoans live healthier lives."

The food desert stores initiative is officially being launched Wednesday with an event at the 67th and Stony Island Walgreens location that will be attended by Daley, Walgreens executives, community leaders, local health care providers and others involved in the effort.

Walgreens, which has more than 7,500 stores nationwide, added that it's reviewing opportunities to bring its expanded food selection to other food deserts.

"We know this issue is not exclusive to Chicago," Wagner noted. "We have more locations in America's underserved communities than any other retailer. That makes us well-positioned to play a role in addressing this important need beyond Chicago."

Last fall, Walgreens bulked up its food offerings in two Chicago stores to meet the needs of residents underserved by grocers. The retailer said it planned to do the same in other outlets in the city, primarily on the South Side, and that if the concept succeeded it could bring the format to other urban cores.

News that Walgreens was planning a larger food offering surfaced early last month. However, the retailer's strategy involves more than just food deserts, with the company seeing a bigger selection of food and beverages — notably freshly made, convenience-oriented items —  as a way to spur customer visits and enlarge the shopping basket at its urban area stores.

In January, Walgreens confirmed that it hired a divisional merchandise manager of fresh foods, supermarket and convenience store veteran Jim Jensen, to lead a new effort to market fresh food and ready-to-eat items. And Walgreens executives have made it no secret that a big attraction in the company's acquisition of Duane Reade was the metropolitan New York drug chain's recently revamped food offering, including to-go foods and snacks as well as a new private-label line called DR Delish. This summer, plans call for Walgreens to offer customers an initial selection of consumable items under the Delish label.

Also with Wednesday's announcement of the Chicago food desert stores, Walgreens said it has teamed with Northwestern Medicine and Near North Health Service Corp. to pilot a program to educate residents in such communities about the link between healthy food choices and preparation and better management of chronic illnesses like diabetes.

Through Northwestern's and Near North's Diabetes Collaborative, the pilot will offer food "prescriptions" to diabetes patients at Near North's Komed Holman Health Center for healthy foods now available at Walgreens. Patients will receive discounts on featured items at the 67th and Stony Island Walgreens location, and shelf tags posted there will help patients identify healthy food options. The retailer said that model could be replicated with other Near North health centers located near Walgreens food desert stores in the future.

The concept, termed "food oasis" by Northwestern, demonstrates the community benefit of public and private entities working together to address health care needs, Walgreens added.

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