AUSTIN — There’s a new place in Austin to buy fresh produce.
The Austin Harvest food mart pop-up was brought to life by neighborhood teens who recognized the food scarcity in the area and decided to take matters into their own hands. The market held a soft opening Wednesday where the teens offered produce, fresh-cut flowers and refreshments.
The market will officially launch Monday and run for 12 weeks. It will be open 3-6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the site of a former liquor store, 423 N. Laramie Ave.
The project was funded by former Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho and other Chicago athletes, as well as By the Hand Kids Club. But it was the teens themselves who envisioned the food mart and brought the idea to fruition.
Young West Siders had their hands in every part of development, from designing the space to crafting a business plan to managing the pop-up.
“We’ve been behind the scenes completely, as well,” said Azariah Baker, one of the teens who created Austin Harvest. “We’ve discussed how we want to show our market, where we wanted our market to be, what we sell, what we look like. This is who runs it.”
The teens started working on the pop-up after the protests for George Floyd in June. By the Hand hosted a series of listening circles to give young people a platform to voice their frustrations around the systemic racism they see in their neighborhood, and to talk about how the civil unrest had impacted them.
There, they discussed how the food scarcity in the neighborhood was part of a legacy of city neglect and racism on the West Side that worsened when some of the few grocery stores in the area had to shut their doors temporarily after being looted.
“Food is a basic necessity. But it’s also a basic necessity we don’t have access to,” Baker said.
Realizing the young people were serious about creating a plan for addressing the food desert in Austin, the Chicago athletes raised $500,000 to tear down the liquor store so the teens could develop a neighborhood food resource. Meanwhile, By the Hand worked with architects and placemaking firms to help the kids figure out what the store would look like.
The Hatchery Chicago also chipped in to give the teens entrepreneurship training so they could learn how to implement their business plans.
Baker said the Austin Harvest is giving the teens meaningful jobs where they learn about marketing, customer service and management. Their work has resulted in internship offers.
“The amount of opportunities that we are creating for ourselves is incredible,” Baker said.
Keith Tankson said creating Austin Harvest has shown him how much of an impact young people can have on improving the local economy and promoting health in the neighborhood.
“This is my first job,” Tankson said. “And also, all the trainings that we get, it’s really building us so we can be entrepreneurs later on. That means we can do so much more. We don’t have to just be bound to this one thing.”
The teens turned their idea into a reality in just two months, but they see the project as ongoing. After their 12-week pop-up fresh market, their goal is to acquire a brick-and-mortar building and develop it into a full grocery store to satisfy their neighborhood’s dire need for food throughout the year.
Baker said their model is proof that when given adequate resources, residents in under-resourced neighborhoods can create innovative solutions to address their challenges. She hopes to see similar projects across the city following their lead.
“We’re popping up with the question as to why our community doesn’t look as great as everybody else’s,” Baker said. “This took us two months to do. We are the blueprint. So think about how much you can build off of this over time.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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