Teens Transform Liquor Store into a Needed Food Market, Choosing The Best Way To Serve Chicago

From darkness comes light. From despair comes hope. From passion comes change. In the wake of turbulent racial protests in America’s Midwest, a group of teenagers in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood were looking for a way to uplift their marginalized West Side community—and they found it.

“With a little help from their friends”, a galvanized group of young entrepreneurs transformed a gutted liquor store into Austin Harvest, a pop-up food market to provide healthy food alternatives for their underserved neighborhood.

The genesis of the project began with listening circles led by By the Hand Club for Kids. “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,” the group’s executive director Donnita Travis told Book Club Chicago.

One of the issues the kids felt about most urgently was the shortage of healthy food options in the area; the result of years of systemic neglect and racism.

For areas like Austin, classified as “food deserts,” groceries and fresh produce are difficult to come by even in the best of times. The situation worsened when several area grocery stores were forced to close temporarily after being looted.

Within the half-mile radius, Austin Harvest has since sprung to life, where there were formerly a dozen liquor stores but only two food markets.

“Food is a basic necessity” Azariah Baker, a teen who’d been with Austin Harvest since its inception, told BCC, “but it’s also a basic necessity we don’t have access to.”

When the discussion turned to the idea of repurposing one of the looted properties into a much-needed community resource, “the kids took the idea and ran with it,” Travis said.

The project got enthusiastic backing from a number of professional athletes. Former Chicago Bears’ linebacker Sam Acho led the charge. “People care. It’s a time for people to show up. I think our world has changed,” Acho told BCC. “So for us to be able to come together and say we’re going to lead that change, it means something.”

Other athletes who contributed to the cause included the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky of the Bears, White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Together, they raised $500,000 in seed money to get the project rolling.

While By the Hand brought in architects and branding experts for guidance, the vision for Austin Harvest was shaped and implemented by its youthful participants. “We’ve been behind the scenes completely,” Baker said. “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.”

Taking a “teach someone to fish rather than give someone a fish approach,” The Hatchery Chicago also pitched in to offer hands-on lessons in real-world business skills including licensing and customer service, as well as a culinary pathways program aimed at helping interested teens work toward careers in the food industry.

“This is a real entrepreneurship opportunity for them,” Travis noted, “but also an opportunity for them to bring food justice to our neighborhood.”