AUSTIN — A West Side liquor store is being transformed into a pop-up food market after Austin teens were given the chance to come up with solutions to their neighborhood’s challenges.
Much of Austin is considered to be a food desert. The pop-up market will be opened at 423 N. Laramie Ave., and within a half-mile radius around that site there are 12 liquor stores but only two markets where people can buy fresh food.
The youth-led project got its start when By the Hand Club for Kids held listening circles after the George Floyd protests against police violence. Young people got to voice their feelings around the inequity that led to the lack of resources in their neighborhoods. They said they were frustrated the few grocery stores in the area had to shut their doors temporarily after being looted.
“What I heard coming out of that was that students wanted to take all those raw and powerful emotions and turn them into something good and do something from a social justice standpoint,” said Donnita Travis, executive director of the group.
When presented with the chance to transform one of the looted stores into a resource for the community, “the kids took the idea and ran with it,” Travis said.
The project was also joined by local athletes, including the NFL’s Sam Acho, who wanted to help realize the young people’s vision for their neighborhood.
“People care. It’s a time for people to show up. I think our world has changed,” Acho said. “So for us to be able to come together and say we’re going to lead that change, it means something.”
Acho and the other athletes raised $500,000 to tear down the liquor store at 423 N. Laramie Ave. and turn the spot into a neighborhood food resource.
Some of the pro athletes contributing to the cause included Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky, White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Meanwhile, By the Hand worked with architects and placemaking firms to help the kids to figure out what the project would look like.
The youth decided they would turn the liquor store into a pop-up food market that will sell fresh fruits, veggies and flowers.
They are developing a curriculum for the pop-up in partnership with the Hatchery Chicago so the young people who run the market can learn entrepreneurship and business skills like licensing and customer service. The Hatchery will also create a culinary pathways program so the project can help young folks envision careers in the food industry.
“We would have fresh fruits and vegetables, but it would also be a place where people feel safe and want to hang out,” Travis said. “We could have some music and maybe we can do some healthy cooking and nutrition demonstrations and education, because not everyone knows or appreciates nutrition.”
The partners on the project held a pilot pop-up market at the liquor store to give the kids a chance to show the community what their vision is. The young people were joined by Chicago athletes, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, all of them armed with sledgehammers as they kicked off the process of tearing down the building.
The building is set to be fully demolished in two weeks, and Travis hopes the pop-ups will begin running in August. The youth will work at the pop-up market a few days a week and they will be paid for their work.
“This is a real entrepreneurship opportunity for them, but also an opportunity for them to bring food justice to our neighborhood,” Travis 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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