WASHINGTON -- For 22 months, first lady Michelle Obama has been traveling the country on her healthy eating and anti-childhood obesity drive. On Tuesday, she is taking her crusade home to Chicago, where low-income neighborhoods on her native South Side are underserved by grocery stores.
These areas -- known as "food deserts" -- have been a focus of Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" campaign since she kicked it off on Feb. 9, 2010. In Chicago, Mrs. Obama is teaming up for a conference with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, who took up the food desert issue during his mayoral campaign.
Under Emanuel, the City Council in September revised zoning ordinances to allow city farms and create more opportunities to sell locally grown produce, and the Chicago Park District is getting rid of junk food in vending machines.
Emanuel has invited about a dozen mayors active in urban food policy to Chicago to the conference, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Mrs. Obama is bringing top Obama administration food, health and community development financing officials and Chicago native Sam Kass, the White House Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives. Kass is also a White House chef who helps oversee Mrs. Obama's White House kitchen garden.
Last July, Mrs. Obama and the nonprofit associated with "Let's Move," the Partnership for a Healthier America, announced pledges from grocery retailers -- including Deerfield-based Walgreens -- to open or expand to 1,500 food desert sites over the next five years.
In Chicago, she wants to see "how these announcements are playing out on the ground," Kass told me in an interview. "Shining a spotlight on these issues helps galvanize support and attention."
Kass said the gathering of mayors will help "us to have a better understanding of what is the role of mayors, what should we be calling on mayors to do, how can they really help the process."
The mayors will start Tuesday in City Hall and then head to the 7-acre Iron Street Farm, 3333 S. Iron St. The mayors will take part in a round-table discussion with Kass and the other federal officials.
At a South Side Walgreens, several CEOs of chains with Chicago outlets will join Mrs. Obama and Emanuel to unveil new commitments to buy local and to build new stores in underserved neighborhoods. The Walgreens is a prototype and has aisles of grocery items. From there, Mrs. Obama and Emanuel will head to the Iron Street Farm for a tour.
Mrs. Obama "really wanted to get out in the community, that's why we are going to the farm," David Spielfogel, Emanuel's policy chief, told me in an interview.
Both Mrs. Obama and Emanuel view the corporate commitments to expand and build more stores as gateways to better health and more jobs.
"Access to affordable food is a foundation to health," Kass said, with an additional dividend. "When a grocery store sets up in an underserved community, it can become an anchor for economic health and community revitalization."
While Mrs. Obama has returned to Chicago for personal visits and for political fund-raising, Tuesday marks the first time she has come home for official business. After the food events, Mrs. Obama heads to Plumbers Hall for a fund-raiser to benefit her husband's 2012 re-election drive.