CHICAGO – The second season of the Austin Harvest Market is in full bloom after opening its doors again this week.
“I couldn’t wait to get back on the floor, could not wait to work with my friends, make jokes and overall see smiles,” said Neveah Hester, a Chicago Public School student who works at Austin Harvest.
Local public-school students like Hester staff and run the market, providing fresh flowers and produce at affordable prices.
“Austin gets a bad reputation, so for us to build something positive and bring it to the Austin community and Chicago meant so much to me, but I never knew exactly how [to make a difference],” Hester said.
That “how” came last June, when Hester and a group of students through the after-school program By The Hand Club For Kids met with former Chicago Bears linebacker Sam Acho and other members of the non-profit Athletes For Justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“There are a lot of people that sit and listen and a lot that ‘do’. Sam does both,” said Andraya Yousfi, managing director of partnerships and development for By The Hand Club For Kids. “What he has with our students is he knows them. He knows what they care about, and then he’s making their dreams happen.”
“At first it was nerve-racking, I’ve never been exposed to people like that,” said CPS student Josh Taylor, who also works at Austin Harvest. “It was just eye opening and getting to know them, they are just like me.”
After listening, came action, as the athletes partnered with By The Hand to raise 500-thousand dollars and turn a looted liquor store into the food market you see today.
“The statistics say in this half-mile radius, there are two grocery stores and 17 liquor stores,” said Acho, who is also president of Athletes for Justice. “So the question of, ‘why build a food mart?’ This was needed. It was necessary.”
“Hearing the stories of, ‘yeah, we have liquor stores everywhere, but no grocery stores at all. Getting fresh food is not part of our life,’ so being able to be just a small part of getting that kick-started and seeing how it’s grown has been wonderful,” said White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, another player who participated in the “peace circles” with Acho and other Chicago athletes last summer in Austin.
The students who staff Austin Harvest had to close the market during the winter and while school was back in session. But with the help of Acho and the sports radio station 670 The Score, they raised more than $630,000 to build a permanent structure at this location on north Laramie Avenue so there’s no need to close again.
“We are raising another half-million dollars, so this is not just temporary, but full time non-stop service, relationships, and community is what we’re building here,” Acho said. “That’s why I’m excited for people to get involved be the change they always wanted to see.”
“It would be great and bring more hope in the community to let them know Austin Harvest is here forever,” Taylor said.
Austin Harvest sprouted out of a food desert. Now, it continues to grow from those first seeds planted with positivity and hope.
“At first it started as a ‘what if?’ and now we are here opening for another year, with the right people and right minds,” Hester said. “A ‘what if’ can turn into a ‘Let’s do it.’”