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Peapod helps wash out Chicago's food desert

Jana Estell has watched helplessly as two full-time grocery stores have closed in her Ashburn neighborhood in the last 10 years, leaving her and her family with a gasoline station for a corner store and limited-selection grocers within driving distance.

"Recently, the gas station put bananas and oranges on the counter, but buying a gallon of milk there costs $3.99," said Estell, a community organizer for the Healthy Chicago Lawn Coalition.

Photo: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Jana Estell and her family -- husband Harold and daughters Taylor, 11, left, and Maya, 16 -- buy food online via Peapod to combat living in a "food desert."  

So Estell jumped at a chance to order groceries from online delivery company Peapod, the 21-year-old company that got its start in Skokie and is now a subsidiary of Royal Ahold of the Netherlands.

Peapod started delivering groceries to the 60652 ZIP code in the spring, and Estell placed her first order June 23.

Estell stuck to Peapod items on sale, and came away with savings of $45 on her order, which totaled $130. The order included two 4-pound bags of Valencia oranges for $9.98, two gallons of milk for $3.98, four 3-ounce packages of Starkist tuna for $5.32, and 18 eggs for $2.49. The delivery fee cost $6.95.

Estell has decided to "mix in" her Peapod ordering with her regular grocery trips.

The Peapod entry came in the nick of time, Estell said, since her 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, had just started expressing an interest in using her allowance to buy a Pepsi and a Honey Bun at the corner gas station.

Estell, who also has 16-year-old twins, Maya and Kayla, is increasingly aware of the need for her family to eat fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, due largely to the publicity about Chicago's food deserts and about childhood obesity nationally.

"I recently said, 'No more pop,' " Jana Estell said, noting that her family eagerly eats fresh fruit and healthy foods when she puts them on the table.

Estell also has become aware of the need for the community to have access to healthy foods and fresh produce through her work. The Healthy Chicago Lawn Coalition has set as a goal giving residents greater varieties of options for fresh fruits, produce and other foods.

That's where Neighbor Capital, a two-year-old, for-profit social enterprise based in Chicago, came in. Neighbor Capital asked Peapod to help fill in Chicago's food deserts -- primarily African-American neighborhoods where few or no major grocery stores operate.

Said Neighbor Capital founder John Piercy, "We can fill a big gap that occurs between charities and for-profit companies in low-income communities by helping businesses reach new customers and enable those customers to transition onto the Web."

Peapod, whose regular delivery service overlaps half of the food desert area, commissioned a study by Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, known for its food-desert analyses, to find out where children are most affected by lack of access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other groceries.

The study, released in June, shows that children most affected live in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, and that the biggest food-desert impact for all residents -- children and adults -- occurs in the Ashburn and West Englewood neighborhoods.

As a result, Peapod in May started taking orders for its "best of the season" fruit bags -- 10 pieces of Peapod's freshest fruit of the season -- at four drop-off sites in food-desert neighborhoods. The fruit bags sell for $2.99 each for those who order at the drop-off sites -- $2 cheaper than the regular $4.99 retail price.

Two of the sites do their ordering internally, while the other two are open to the public. The two open-order sites are at Hope House at Lawndale Community Church, 3827 W. Ogden, and at the 71st and Sawyer Block Club.

Shoppers bought more than 1,500 fruit bags between May 4 and mid-June.

Peapod is opening six more drop-off sites this summer, including those open to the public at Tarkington Elementary School, 3344 W. 71st St.; Breakthrough Urban Ministries, 402 N. St. Louis; the West Thomas and North Campbell Block Cluster, and the Knock Box Cafe, 1001 N. California.

Neighbor Capital takes orders from residents at the drop-off sites and calls in a single, consolidated order to Peapod. That makes the process more efficient and cost-effective due to Peapod's truck-routing technology and ability to pick and pack the orders at a single distribution center.

Scott DeGraeve, general manager at Peapod, said Peapod's focus is to reach families in the food desert with attractive values and good food.

The long-term goal is to lessen the rates of diabetes, childhood obesity and high blood pressure in food-desert neighborhoods. Further, more residents are expected to go online as the Obama administration's universal broadband initiative brings greater Internet access to inner-city schools and public spaces.

DeGraeve said Peapod plans to expand the number of drop-off sites in the food desert, aiming to set up as many as 50 sites by fall.

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