CHICAGO — The Austin neighborhood is often referred to as a food desert. However, big changes are on the way as one local business owner has dedicated her work to bringing economic opportunity, appreciation and fresh produce to the West Side community.
Business owner Liz Abunaw exudes excitement when she talks about the possibilites in the neighborhood.
“Austin has parks, beautiful architecture in terms of the homes, it has great access to transportation,” she said.
With all the possibilities, Abunaw said there are still some deficiencies. The West Side neighborhood has struggled for years to keep a grocery store and businesses are drying up as well. Abunaw said it was something that hit the first time she stumbled into the area in 2016.
“I didn’t realize I was going to the Austin neighborhood when I went there,” she said. “So I hop off the 66 bus and I realize I need cash and couldn’t find a bank, or a pharmacy or a grocery store.
Orignally from upstate New York, Abunaw said the stark contrast in Austin compared to other thriving Chicago neighborhoods stayed with her.
“It was that experience of being on a major commercial corridor in Chicago in a predominately Black neighborhood and not having easy access to what I think should be basic goods and services that people need on a daily basis that just opened my eyes and exposed me to the deep inequality in Chicago,” she said.
That experience was enough for her to invest in the community and open her first fresh grocery pop up market called Forty Acres. The name is a reference to the unfulfilled order by General William T. Sherman’s promise to distribute land to African Americans after the Civil War along the southeast coast.
“When I was coming up with a name for the business I wanted something that was distinctly Black American, something that spoke to our heritage and culture and fresh food,” she said.
Offering a mix of fresh fruit and vegetables the market was a success. When the pandemic hit, she turned to boosting delivery service with pre-selected boxes of produce. She said that on a daily basis, they carry anywhere from 60 to 80 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables.
In spite of the pandemic, Abunaw is dedicated to making Austin a community just like any other. Partnering with the Westside Health Authority, a community development corporation, a former Salvation Army site on Chicago Avenue will soon be home to Forty Acres grocery store. It is currently under renovation.
“Austin deserves more, Austin deserves true investment and they deserve beautiful architecture and a place where they can come into shop and have the experience of grocery shopping,” Abunaw said.
The grocery store is a for-profit business and she hopes it will spur economic growth and employment.
“I didn’t see a neighborhood that need saving or people that needed me to rescue them, I saw people that were underserved in their market and who are customers that need to be valued,” she said.
“She’s about helping people and creating opportunity for people. So she took a chance and saw an opportunity and she did it,” Darren Cox, an employee, said.
“Austin is a great neighborhood,” Abunaw said. “Does it have its challenges? Yes, but when you look past those challenges, it has good bones. There is tons of opportunity there and that’s what I saw.
Liz Abunaw is one of Chicago’s Very Own.
The new forty acres grocery store is slated to open in the beginning of 2022.