AUSTIN — Chicago Avenue has long been a backbone for business and foot traffic in Austin. But West Side residents living near the strip can’t access fresh, healthy foods, as they live more than a mile away from a supermarket or grocery store.
Many Austinites travel to suburban Oak Park to stock up on the food they need. But the lack of affordable and healthy food in Austin may come to an end thanks to Forty Acres Fresh Market, which aims to build a brick-and-mortar grocery store on Chicago Avenue. Its owner is asking the community for help landing a grant to open the store.
If successful, the grocery store would end what Forty Acres founder Liz Abunaw calls an intentional “food apartheid” after decades of disinvestment on 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. The nearest grocery stores to the corridor where Forty Acres Fresh Market will be built are Food 4 Less, 4821 W. North Ave. and Save A Lot, 5555 W. North Ave., each more than a mile away.
Forty Acres Fresh Market previously won grants to successfully expand their weekly pop-up markets and build out their produce box delivery program. But the previous rounds of funding couldn’t be used for for construction or rent costs, Abunaw said.
Abunaw is now vying for a grant that would allow Forty Acres to secure a location and start construction on a permanent brick-and-mortar on Chicago Avenue.
“We want a sustainable business that we know can be a part of the neighborhood’s social infrastructure. It’s a place where neighbors see each other,” she said.
In order to secure the grant to build the first Black-owned full-service affordable grocery store to Austin, Abunaw needs help from the community that the store will serve.
Forty Acres Fresh Market is a contender for the $50,000 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, and the finalists for the grant are selected by popular vote. Supporters can vote once each day at the FedEx site, and the top 700 entrants with the most votes will then be reviewed by a panel of judges. Projects are judged based on the viability of the business and their savviness with social media. Bonus points are given to businesses that have a unique offering that is otherwise not available to customers, are environmentally sustainable, and have a positive impact on the surrounding community — all criteria that Forty Acres meets and exceeds, according to Abunaw.
“The city is only as strong as any one of our neighborhoods. And we should want every one of our neighbors to have those opportunities for good health, for wealth building, and for social bonding,” Abunaw said. “It’s bigger than food. Voting for us is saying, I understand this is important, and even if you don’t live in Austin, I want people to have those options.”
The need for the grocery store is illustrated by the 16-year “death gap” in life expectancy between parts of downtown Chicago and the West Side, where many struggle from preventable diseases that have little to do with clinical care, and everything to do with the built environment of a neighborhood.
“That number is people dying prematurely of preventable diet-related illness,” Abunaw said. “Your zip code should not determine how long you live. And this is regardless of whether you have money or not. Not having access to fresh food where you live makes it harder.”
Forty Acres Fresh Market will fill a gap in the market for in-between shopping trips, which Abunaw said are the most frequent runs to the store that people make. These are typically weekly trips to the market for fresh foods and produce needed to cook a meal, rather than canned goods, dried foods and staples that people stock up on during a less frequent visit to a larger supermarket. The modest size of the 5,000-square-foot store also makes the business more sustainable and affordable since they’ll pay less rent, smaller overhead, and fewer utility costs.
And with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative targeting the Chicago Avenue corridor as one of its priority areas, Abunaw said the timing is right for opening a grocery store on the strip. With other businesses drawing shoppers to the area and contributing to the walkability and visual appeal of the neighborhood, Forty Acres Fresh Market will be ripe for success. And once the business secures a site for the grocery store, Abunaw will be able to access even more city support with grants like the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to help build out the store.
“With the timing of everything, I have a better chance of survival,” she said. “I’m doing this at a time where other microbusinesses like Forty Acres are ready to scale, and are being given the resources to do so.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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