AUSTIN — The Austin City Market has been extended through the end of October following one of the most successful seasons ever at the weekly farmers market.
The market brings local produce farmers, prepared food vendors and grocery businesses each Thursday to help bring healthy food access to an area considered by many to be a food desert.
The market at the Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., is organized by the city’s cultural affairs office and is hosted by Forty Acres Fresh Market, a Black-owned grocery startup run by Austin resident Liz Abunaw.
Abunaw brought together local vendors to help the market “grow by leaps and bounds,” according to director of the city market program Alisa Baum. The overwhelming success of the market over the summer thanks to Abunaw helped the city secure grants from the One Chicago Fund to extend the market into the fall, Baum said.
“We have found that needs are greater because of COVID, and because of people losing their jobs,” Baum said. “So it’s been wonderful to have all of these community resources there to provide food … to be able to shop outside, they feel safer.”
In past years, the Austin City Market was more of a small farm stand than a true market, Baum said. Many food businesses were previously wary of selling at the market because it can be a challenge getting enough customers in Austin compared to areas like Logan Square or Oak Park.
But Abunaw flexed her network and community connections to bring several Black-owned food vendors to the table and build additional momentum behind the market, eventually building a strong following of customers, Baum said. She estimates at least three times more shoppers have come to the market this year, many of whom come to buy from one vendor but end up patronizing several businesses there.
“It creates this really cool ecosystem right in Austin of small Black-owned healthy food businesses,” Abunaw said. “It’s an Austin market with businesses run by Austin residents.”
Beyond the dozens of varieties of fruits and veggies sold by Forty Acres, shoppers can find produce and flowers grown from a local South Side farm at the Finding Justice food stand.
Two Sisters Catering serves a robust menu of dinners and sides like turkey meatloaf, herb-baked chicken, mashed potatoes and collard greens.
Q’s Pound Cakes is a new vendor serving desserts and baked goods. Danie’s Delicious Detox Drinks has a stand at the weekly market with a variety of cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices.
The market also has a food demonstration booth to help educate shoppers about the healthy and delicious recipes that can be cooked up using the produce purchased at the market. “You tie in the food education with the fact that you have food access,” Abunaw said.
Abunaw welcomes other West Side food businesses interested in vending at the market to contact her at email@example.com.
In the past, there were other city markets in Austin, including one at Columbus Park. The markets had to be consolidated due to a lack of interest from vendors and customers, and the city focused its efforts on the Austin City Market, Baum said.
The West Side has always lacked grocery stores and supermarkets, and Forty Acres was created by Abunaw to help fill those gaps. But “with the pandemic, especially for seniors, it’s been a tough time, financially and food access-wise,” Abunaw said.
The outdoor market extension gives seniors and other residents another reliable place to shop for food, and vendors accept state Senior Farmers Market Coupons, Veggie Rx coupons, and produce perks. SNAP benefits can also be at used the market for double-dollars.
Those benefits are especially important to make food easily accessible for seniors, Abunaw said, since older adults have struggled with food access due to the pandemic. The market is just across the a senior center and in a central location where residents from all over Austin can easily travel to.
And in a time of social distancing, the extended market will also continue to serve as a safe gathering place to help relieve some of the isolation people are feeling.
“It’s very socially distant. But still very social. People are meeting local business owners and meeting their neighbors. It creates social cohesion in the neighborhood,” Abunaw said. “Social cohesion is one of the hallmarks of creating a safe neighborhood.”
The Austin City Market runs Thursdays 1-6 p.m. through Oct. 29 at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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