West Side Health Authority Founder Jackie Reed (center) and others pick out fresh apples and other produce during the groundbreaking of Forty Acres Fresh Market on Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Trey Arline/ Block Club Chicago

AUSTIN — Forty Acres Fresh Market is under construction after multiple delays.

The Black-owned store, the brainchild of Elizabeth “Liz” Abunaw, broke ground Wednesday at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. The brick-and-mortar store is an extension of Abunaw’s work since 2018 running pop-ups, farmers markets and a grocery delivery service to bring fresh food and produce to the West Side after years of food insecurity.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Austin neighbors got their pick of produce like fresh apples, potatoes and greens to bring home in grocery bags, as well as store merch, which Abunaw’s parents wore with pride.

“In all the jobs I have had, this is the only one that I felt called to do. This goes far beyond money or a paycheck,” Abunaw said. “I never wanted this project to become another broken promise. But we have to do this right. This time has helped us build Forty Acres. … This is a testament to what diverse teams can do.”

The store, which sits on an old Salvation Army building around the corner from Mayor Brandon Johnson’s house, is being built by Milhouse Engineering & Construction.

“I live right down the street from here. This is really important to us because we know this is a food desert and underserved for such a long time. To have a hand in putting this together means everything,” he said. 

The grocery store partnered with Westside Health Authority to secure the space in 2020 with funding from the Christopher Family Foundation, the Lumpkin Family Foundation and a state minority-owned business grant.

Abunaw then received a $2.5 million grant from the Chicago Recovery Fund in 2022 to support the buildout. The grant covers part of the construction costs, including plumbing, mechanical and electrical work for equipment like refrigerators and freezers.

The funds were allocated through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, a program aimed at spurring economic growth in under-resourced Black and Latino neighborhoods, officials said.

Forty Acres Fresh Market founder Liz Abunaw smashing bricks with a sledgehammer during the groundbreaking event for her store. Credit: Trey Arline/ Block Club Chicago

Before construction began, the building hosted pop-up markets in 2022 with vendors like Star Farms, Q’s Pound Cakes, Atmos Coffee, Nuts to Go and Thank God 4 Raw & Vegan Treats. Fresh produce boxes featuring some of these vendors are available to order on the Forty Acres site.

Jackie Reid, founder of the West Side Health Authority, said a new grocery store is badly needed in the area. Some parts of Austin are considered food deserts, and the closure of local stores has forced neighbors to travel farther for grocery shopping.

Medical experts say people living in food deserts have a higher risk of numerous health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. A recent study by the Brookings Institute found food deserts are common in Black neighborhoods, regardless of the community’s socioeconomic status.

In addition, a 2021 city study showed the life expectancy gap is growing between Black and non-Black Chicagoans. Black people in Chicago live an estimated 9.2 fewer years than non-Black people, and poor nutrition is cited as one of the social factors that lead to worse health outcomes.

“This is so important to have in our community because so many of us have just grown used to buying fast food and not having food to cook,” Reid said. “The health disparity is enormous in our community compared to other neighborhoods throughout the city because people don’t have access to fruits and vegetables.”

The 43-year-old Abunaw is a native of New York who moved to Chicago for business school. She spent years working for grocery industry companies like General Mills. Although she originally sought to move away from the industry, she said she then wanted to address this crucial need for West Siders, connecting with Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, to establish the store, she said.

Abunaw established Forty Acres in 2017 and did her first pop-up in January 2018. She previously told Block Club the name is a reference to the unfulfilled promise to offer 40 acres and a mule as reparations to Black people after 200 years of slavery.

After months of navigating city bureaucracy, Abunaw secured permits to start construction on the store in September, according to her blog.

“We know this is not a Pete’s, an Aldi’s or a Jewel. We had to work to gain this community’s trust,” she said. “Even on the days I felt like giving up, the faith people put in me kept me going.”

Rep. La Shawn Ford said the groundbreaking was a special occasion for Austin.

“It’s easy to say we need fresh fruits and vegetables, but it’s hard to put it together,” Ford said. “This right now feels good for everyone, for our social and emotional health. We know that hope is on the way.”

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