After the success of its pilot program at 10 Chicago stores last fall, Deerfield-based Walgreen’s announced recently they will be adding more “expanded food selection” items to their stores in African American communities, according to Greg Wasson, the company’s CEO.

Walgreen’s intends to introduce the larger food selections, which include fresh fruits & vegetables, eggs, cheese, meats and fish, to stores nationwide in areas with little access to supermarkets as the demand in these areas continue to rise, Wasson said. “We have an excellent opportunity to use our locations across the country to serve these communities,” he said. “The fresh foods go beyond convenience items that Walgreens has carried for years, such as milk and orange juice. The test stores offer more than 750 new products, including fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meat and fish, pasta, rice, beans, eggs and whole-grain cereals.” The expansion of the program to other stores across the country shows the direction the drug-store chain is going. Wasson said Walgreens is changing with the country and food market as needed. He said expanding the program was an easy business decision based on the needs of many Americans in communities where healthy choices are not always available.

“We are evolving from a retail drugstore to a retail health and daily living store,” Wasson said. “We are expanding our Take Care Clinic services beyond acute care to provide health screenings, chronic care management and more primary care… Our intent is to own outright the strategic territory of ‘wellness.’”

After his speech to shareholders, Wasson explained to reporters that the company has been researching areas that traditional supermarket franchises have abandoned the past few years. Many of these areas are in African American communities. The lack of quality groceries in some areas are so bad, sociologists have labeled them “food deserts.” The areas are defined as places in the modernized world where the access to quality, healthy food is non-existent.

Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hariston lives in the area of one of the Walgreens stores that participated in the pilot program. She was elated with the news that Walgreens will be expanding it to other areas of the city. She said it is something that is needed and praised Walgreens for being a good “community partner.”

“Walgreens is one of those corporations you enjoy having in your ward because they provide so much for the community,” she said. “In addition to the goods they sell, they hire people from our community in their stores and they do a lot of community outreach. The different health fairs they sponsor and administering flu shots to seniors are all a part of what they do. So I’m happy with the news last week and I’m optimistic they will be bringing the program to another one of their stores in my ward.”

Residents are also happy to hear about the expansion, especially those who do not own a vehicle or have trouble getting around town on the bus. Marrietta Hendricks, 63, said her community is one of the “food deserts” in Chicago. A longtime resident of the West Pullman community, she said the closest grocery store for her is nearly three miles away. She said residents have complained for years about the lack of access and she is hopeful Walgreens will step in to fill the void.

“I go to Walgreens all the time and they could definitely help the situation,” Hendricks said. “It won’t solve everything though because they will still be somewhat limited in what they sell. Right now when I want to go grocery shopping, I have to call one of my friends or ride with a neighbor when they are going because I’m too old to be on the bus or walking with bags full of groceries.” It will not be known until later this year which stores will have the expanded food sections.

Walgreens is currently the nation’s largest drugstore chain with fiscal year 2010 sales of $67 billion. The company operates 7,655 drugstores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.