Illustration by Asia Babiuk

Tackling Food Apartheid on the West Side

How community organizations are responding to the need for food access in Austin and Garfield Park

Forty acres and a mule”— referencing the first act of reparations temporarily granted to formerly enslaved people after the Civil War—didn’t make it past 1865, and definitely has not translated to West Side neighborhoods where mostly Black residents scarcely have land ownership, nor the means to grow their own food. Traveling west on the #70 bus past Kedzie Avenue or on the Green Line past Ashland Avenue, you will squint and search to spot any grocery store. The same realization hit Liz Abunaw when she first traveled to Austin—a trip that would launch her long journey toward establishing a Black-owned grocery store in the neighborhood, named Forty Acres Fresh Market.

“I needed to get cash,” said Abunaw, a New York native who now lives in Austin. “Chicago and Laramie is where I got off the bus and there’s not a bank within a mile radius. So I’m gonna just go to CVS or Walgreens, buy a pack of gum and get cash back. There’s no CVS, Walgreens, in a mile radius either. So then I’m going to have to go to the grocery store, buy one thing, get cash back. There’s no grocery store in a mile radius.”

Abunaw wants to change that. Previously in development and sales at Microsoft in Chicago, she started Forty Acres Fresh Market in 2018 as a series of pop-up markets in Austin that brought fresh produce vendors to the West Side. Her transition out of tech wasn’t easy but came from the need she saw for a grocery store on the West Side. Over the years she’s set up in churches and at Westside Health Authority facilities—testing out the concept while making quality food available to folks with Link cards. Now, Forty Acres has grown to employ seven full-time staff and plans to break ground on a permanent, brick-and-mortar grocery store on Chicago Avenue by this summer. 

“[The name] is an homage to the unfulfilled promise to freed slaves for forty acres and a mule,” said Abunaw in an interview with CBS News. “First, I wanted a name that was distinctly Black, particularly Black American, because the issue of not having access to healthy food where we live hits our communities hard. I find it to be cruel irony that the people who basically built this country, who were our country’s first farmers, who were so tied to the land, now live in land where they can get nothing that comes from the land.”

Abunaw and other West Side residents, nonprofit leaders and organizers recognize that one grocery store can’t remedy decades of disinvestment in neighborhood economies. But food access is key to both public health and economic revitalization, which is why they’re hoping the city will do more to support and fund locally owned, Black-owned grocery stores—to both fill the dire need for healthy food options in the area, and to keep money circulating in West Side communities.

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Only a handful of miles from well-resourced neighborhoods in Chicago like West Loop, Wicker Park, and Logan Square, you will find neighborhoods like Austin, Garfield Park, and West Humboldt Park struggling to garner even one grocery store that will stick around for longer than a couple of years. In December 2020, Austin’s Save-A-lot on Central and North Avenue closed. Then in October 2021, the Aldi on Madison Street closed in West Garfield Park. 

But don’t call it a food desert. According to Stef Funk of the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, a food desert implies that the inequality is naturally occurring. “Deserts are also important and flourishing ecosystems where there’s a ton of stuff going on,” Funk said. “Whereas a ‘food apartheid’ gets deeper at the actual root of the problem, where it’s not random that some places don’t have food and some places do.” On the West Side, where redlining and contract buying decimated Black families’ attempts to build wealth for decades, “food apartheid” is a better term to describe a system intentionally built to disinvest and discriminate, she explained.

This systematic discrimination is one reason why West Side residents are demanding that the city dedicate more money and resources to ensure their neighborhoods have healthy food options. Abunaw’s project comes at a time when the West Side has been promised major new investments. In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the Invest South/West initiative, which hopes to disperse $750 million in public dollars to disinvested South and West Side neighborhoods. 

The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has finalized the plan for the “Soul City Corridor Development,” which will redevelop Chicago Avenue to include affordable housing, a blues museum, and healthy food options. Plans for the eastern site of the corridor (a mile from the Forty Acres location) include a proposed grocery store, but according to Peter Strazzabosco at DPD, the planning process for that site has not begun, and “it could happen but he is not going to predict when.” As of press time, DPD officials did not respond to questions about progress on that plan.

Though Abunaw is not a part of Invest South/West’s plan in Austin, she did receive over $2.5 million from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to redevelop the former Salvation Army building at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. This money came through a development company that Abunaw created, along with local nonprofit Westside Health Authority, in order to purchase the building, which will house an additional commercial tenant besides Forty Acres, Abunaw said.

Financial investment for food retailers is scarce and often difficult to acquire, even for large grocery store chains—an industry that does not have large profit margins and relies on selling a lot of product. “They [big box grocery stores] fear that if we were to come to these neighborhoods, we wouldn’t stay in business long because residents won’t be able to afford it,” said 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro. 

In the past, these larger companies have also received huge subsidies from local government. In 2014, Whole Foods received $10.7 million in Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funds from the city to open an Englewood location. The money went toward “environmental work and infrastructure improvements.” In 2011, Mariano’s received $7 million in TIF funds to open a West Loop location.

It’s much harder to finance a locally owned grocery store, which can’t offset its costs with profits from wealthier chain locations. Angela Taylor, who is the Wellness Coordinator at the Garfield Park Community Council, has been growing food locally for almost 10 years. She sells the produce at the monthly Garfield Park Community Council market at The Hatchery Chicago, which became all the more critical for residents after the West Garfield Park Aldi closed. 

“I would say the biggest challenge is … finances, because as any other business had to operate, you got to have some operating costs,” said Taylor. “The resources that we get from selling the produce goes back into the gardens, but it don’t leave a nice long runway for us to be able to staff the market and keep it up and going.”

Garfield Park was left out of the Invest South/West geographic area, and since the Aldi closed, community members have been demanding the city provide a grocery store in its place. Taylor is among the community residents who have organized emergency food drives through the Rite To Wellness Collaborative. After an intense debate in a City Council committee earlier this year, the City Council approved plans to possibly purchase the shuttered Aldi site with the intent to find a new operators for the space—but aldermen across the city wondered why and when they should intervene in these cases, considering the purchase would give money to a company that pulled out of the community.

Similar to Forty Acres Fresh Market, the Garfield Park Community Council and the Rite to Wellness Collaborative are imagining what it means to not just bring a mega corporate food business to their communities, but create a way for money to circulate within their neighborhoods. This concept has an even deeper meaning for Black neighborhoods in the city that have been disinvested from the start.

“We need to really take a seat at the table and discuss what our needs are and figure out how we bring building blocks together and have our own community grocery store,” said Taylor. “We growing food. We got all different types of entrepreneurs like beauty care products, laundry products, light bulbs. How do we put all those ingredients together and build it? And then get an owner-operator to manage it?”

Abunaw, having received the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, now feels more secure in her endeavor, she said, but only after doing much of the fundraising through private investors. It wasn’t easy. “I initially thought my store would be a $500,000 project. It’s now an $8 million project as a 9,000-square foot grocery store. Who has that kind of capital?” she said. “Part of the reason why I partner [with WHA] is because they are a nonprofit; Forty Acres is not. They have access to funding that we don’t. This idea of, ‘just build a grocery store’—it’s naive.” 

Her next task is to generate greater visibility for her Black-owned business. Through the pop-up markets and partnership building, she hopes to create momentum in the community in anticipation of the store opening. Not only is Abunaw worried about the quality of food, but also the experience she can cultivate in her store whether it’s through who is working at the cash register, or the music playing on the speakers. Her outspokenness is apparent as soon as you ask her about food apartheid, but she is equally as dedicated to the atmosphere of the store, hoping to employ Black folks from the community and ensure that consumers see familiar faces. 

A grocery store can improve food access, and a locally Black-owned grocery store will help restore ownership to the community. But that’s just one puzzle piece to reinvesting and reinvigorating neighborhoods that have faced decades of disinvestment and wealth theft. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have cited the importance of a person’s neighborhood environment to achieving better health outcomes. 

“People don’t realize, walking down the street and seeing empty lots, broken glass, trash, all of these different things causes a breakdown in mental health called weathering,” explained Jadelyn Brooke, public health coordinator at Westside Health Authority who has worked with Abunaw on the Forty Acres project. 

Whether it’s mental health problems, low wages, violent crime, or underfunded schools, these factors that disproportionately affect West Side residents have been exacerbated by COVID-19, an illness that is especially dangerous for people with pre-existing conditions. 

“People on the North Side got COVID and they recovered, but people on the South and West Sides got COVID and they died. They died because they had diabetes or because they had asthma or because they had all of these pre-existing conditions that are often quality-of-life diseases, not genetic,” said Abunaw.

In the end, it isn’t about changing just lives but also lifestyles—which Abunaw hopes to do, and Taylor and organizers are attempting to do in Garfield Park. As residents ask and wait for the city to ensure their neighborhoods have access to basic needs like healthy food, West Siders like Abunaw are working on their own solutions, forty acres at a time. 

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This story was produced by City Bureau, a Bronzeville-based civic journalism lab. For more information and to get involved, go to citybureau.org. 

Isra Rahman is a writer and journalist with the Invisible Institute. This is her first piece with the Weekly.

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