AUSTIN — Thanks to a local food startup’s efforts and $335,000 in new grants, Forty Acres Fresh Market will expand its pop-up markets and food delivery service in Austin — bringing it one step closer to opening an affordable grocery store in the neighborhood.
Forty Acres recently won a $185,000 grant to develop an affordable grocery store in Austin from the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that aims to expand access to healthy foods in under-resourced areas. The food startup also received $150,000 from the American Heart Association’s social impact fund in August.
The startup grocer currently operates a three-day monthly market starting the second Friday of each month at 5051 W. Chicago Ave. Abunaw also sets up smaller produce stands at farmers markets in the area, like the weekly Tuesday market at PCC Austin Farm, 330 N. Lotus Ave.
Her company also runs a daily evening delivery service for fresh produce which lets Chicago residents order items a la carte, and also has $5, $10 and $15 produce boxes that offer an ultra-affordable curated assortment of seasonal fruits and veggies.
“Let’s say you bought a $5 fruit box, you could get kiwis, apples, an orange, a mango, and some bananas and a pack of raspberries for five bucks,” Abunaw said.
Like much of the West Side, Austin is considered by many to be a food desert, an area lacking affordable access to nutritious food, leaving residents to travel a mile or more to grocery stores or otherwise rely on convenience stores, processed meals and fast food. But Forty Acres owner Liz Abunaw said calling the area a food desert isn’t exactly accurate.
“I call it an area living under food apartheid. Yeah, I don’t want to use the term food deserts because it implies — deserts are a naturally occurring environment,” Abunaw said. “…This doesn’t happen naturally. It happens by years of divestment. It happens by years of neglect.”
With the new grants, Forty Acres will be able to expand all of its services while also preparing to develop a brick-and-mortar permanent location for the market in partnership with the Westside Health Authority, a public health and community nonprofit. The grocery store is planned to be a 3,000-square-foot shop that will have fresh produce at great prices.
The selection at the small neighborhood grocery store would span from fresh fruits and veggies to dry foods to refrigerated items, along with some prepared foods. While the grocer wouldn’t be as expansive as a supermarket like Pete’s Fresh Market, Abunaw wants the store to allow people in the neighborhood to stock up on daily food items between major bulk-item shopping trips.
Neither of the grants will cover the construction or purchase of grocery store, and Abunaw is pursuing separate financing options while scouting locations along the Chicago Avenue corridor in Austin.
Instead, Abunaw is using those funds to build out the food box delivery program to allow more people to access the fresh produce. She will be hiring additional delivery drivers through a reentry program run West Side Health Authority, that will also support employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
The grant funding will also pay for equipment like refrigerators and refrigeration trucks, market research and an expansion of the year-long series of pop-up markets to help attract more residents while the permanent store is under development.
“After a while when your neighborhood has been divested from for so long… it can oftentimes take people a while to discover new businesses and new things that they would totally love to patronize, but they’re just not aware of. So we wanted to start with pop-ups,” Abunaw said.
A lack of access to health food contributes to largely race-determined 16 year life expectancy gap between residents of downtown Chicago and West Side neighborhoods, according to West Side United, a coalition of hospitals and advocates for health equity.
The prospective location on Chicago Avenue is critical to the plan not only because it had historically been one of the main commercial centers in Austin, but according to Abunaw, it is also an area facing some of the most dire need for healthy fresh food access.
“From a food perspective, it’s a mile from Madison, where Leamington Foods is, and it’s a mile from North Avenue where Save A Lot and Food 4 Less are. So anybody who lives like in this middle area, you’re more than a mile from any kind of food retail that would sell anything fresh,” Abunaw said.
Many of the residents in that area often end up foregoing fresh food. But Abunaw noticed that when people do go shopping at a fresh market, they tend to go outside their neighborhood, often spending their dollars in suburbs like Oak Park where grocery stores are plentiful. By improving local amenities in the area and creating better options for residents to buy their food, the store will allow neighbors to spend money in their own community.
“That means that dollars are being spent back in the neighborhood again. It means jobs. It means improved quality of the built environment. … It’s about being an integral part of the community that you operate at,” Abunaw said.
Forty Acres is named for the unfulfilled promise to offer 40 acres and a mule as reparations to black folks after 200 years of slavery. Abunaw said there is a tragic irony that as slaves, black people were forced to cultivate the land as an agricultural workforce. But today, the descendants of those people now live in communities that are the most likely to lack fresh, nutritious food access.
“I wanted the name to be a reminder of our history and that access to fresh food is kind of a birthright for us,” she said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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