Pearly Peas
Chicago food deserts meet their match

by Jess Young | Photography by Lynn Millspaugh


If you’re lucky, in your corner of Chicago a store with healthy food at affordable prices is only a short walk or ride away. But there are some parts of the city where the healthiest choice is between the fried chicken joint and the 7-11. One Chicago woman is working to make sure that citizens have access to healthy food and information on how to prepare it. On a perfect summer afternoon, The Urbaness went on a tour of Bronzeville with writer Zuri Thompson of Fried Caviar to talk fresh produce, food deserts, juicing, and her work to get healthy options to the south side’s seniors.

Zuri writes at Fried Caviar, a Tumblr blog that catalogues her attempt to find fresh food in Chicago food deserts, and to help others to do the same. Not only is she a writer and juicing goddess, she’s also a community activist spearheading nutrition programming aimed at Bronzeville seniors called Pearly Peas. Pearly Peas is Zuri’s non-profit, community-based organization. She works with senior centers in her neighborhood and teaches seniors about juicing, nutrition, and healthy eating.

Not only is Zuri a writer and juicing goddess, she’s also a community activist spearheading nutrition programming aimed at Bronzeville seniors called Pearly Peas.
Years ago, Zuri was working with the Bronzeville Community Market for the Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC) as well as working at a posh, downtown steakhouse to help make ends meet. It was hard not to notice the dichotomy of lifestyle. “Saturday mornings I was here, Saturday nights I was in a completely different world, where dinners are minimum 200 bucks.” This difference touched her deeply. While touring the Bronzeville Community Market, a tiny but mighty farmer’s market, which on this and most days, has only one vendor, she shares, “This is where I became interested in community nutrition. I saw who was coming and what was needed to make more people come.”

In her time running the Bronzeville Community Market, Zuri noticed that it was mostly senior citizens who were shopping there. “I need to do something to get food to seniors,” she said to herself. “They’re the ones out here; they eat more fresh produce than anyone else in the community. If they’re not getting it here, where are they getting it?”

Pearly Peas takes Zuri into public senior citizen buildings run by the CHA, as well as buildings that are privately owned and operated. Her activities with seniors include juicing, smoothie demos, bringing produce and snack samples, even taking shopping trips and teaching financial literacy. She loves being able to work with seniors specifically, and to work in her neighborhood. “I actually saw one of my seniors on the bus a few days ago,” she said when we toured the neighborhoods and she pointed out the buildings where she works.

Pearly Peas is only growing stronger. Zuri recently won a grant from the American Heart Association to deepen her work in Bronzeville and continue building partnerships in her community to bring information about healthy practices to senior citizens. While Zuri wants to stay focused on nutrition for seniors, she’s also interested in other resources she can incorporate. “Pearly Peas is a program with Partners in Community Building. One of the biggest focuses is financial literacy; that’s something that I incorporate with Pearly Peas. It makes sense when we’re going shopping: before you go, you should know what your budget is. Seniors typically have a fixed income; it’s the same thing every month. It’s an ideal group to work with. For now I’m trying to stay focused on those services, and grow from there.”

“I realize I was supposed to be in Bronzeville to do this. If it takes me to other cities, to share my experience with other people in other communities, that would be amazing. But I’m supposed to be here, now, doing this.”
Pearly Peas may sound like outreach work, but to Zuri, it’s practically second nature. Her mother is a community activist and the creator of Partners in Community Building, and so she learned that working within her community wasn’t giving back; it was what she was taught to do. While her identity as a woman of color has meaning for her, it’s her connection to Bronzeville that drives her work. “I live here,” she says, “I work with this population. I don’t know if I was not black, that I wouldn’t still feel the desire to help… I grew up traveling a lot, and sometimes I’ll beat myself up asking how come you don’t live in DC, how come you don’t live somewhere else. But now that I’m doing this kind of work, I realize I was supposed to be in Bronzeville to do this. If it takes me to other cities, to share my experience with other people in other communities, that would be amazing. But I’m supposed to be here, now, doing this.”
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
Photography by Lynn Millspaugh
2013-08-19