At 7:20 pm, when people are winding down from the day, Elizabeth “Liz” Abunaw is helping customers’ select fresh collard greens for dinner. Serving about 1000 customers in the past two years through pop up markets and produce stands, Forty Acres Fresh Market keeps Liz and her team busy serving communities that seem forgotten by major grocers. Amidst sorting fresh produce that is affordably priced for the community, Liz took a moment to speak about her experience bringing fresh food to the Westside for the past three years.
Why Forty Acres?
EA: I was not planning to be an entrepreneur. I worked in corporate America my entire career. That experience accidentally prepared me for this because I worked with some of the largest supermarkets in the country. When I moved to Chicago to attend graduate school, I arrived on the West Side at Laramie and Austin. I realized it was a tale of two cities. There were no banks, Walgreens, or grocery stores. How does the neighborhood survive without a basic economy? There were no basic services here. Experiencing this first-hand stuck with me. There was just a clear delineation of the neighborhoods that were cared for and the ones that were not. When I was shopping at my favorite grocery store, I wondered why there was not a resource for quality produce at an affordable price on the Westside. There are plenty of neighborhoods just like the Austin Community that share this story. It is the story of divestment and the story of neglect. I thought someone should do something about this. Eventually, that thought became why not me?
What did you learn as you created Forty Acres?
EA: When I embarked on this journey, I thought I would have to teach people how to eat healthy but if you look at the average African-American dinner table, what is on it? Green beans, sweet potatoes, etc. I learned that we are knowledgeable when it comes to healthy food choices but we do not have access to healthy and affordable food. We have to travel outside of our neighborhoods. It creates this belief that in order to have anything good; we have to leave our own neighborhoods. We deserve to have the investment and resources where we live.
What Does Forty Acres mean to you?
EA: Forty Acres is the fulfillment of a promise. It is the fulfillment of the promise of self-ownership, it is the fulfillment of a promise of resources and assets, and it is the fulfillment of the promise of investment in our communities. It is something for us. A grocery store is an anchor for other small businesses to realize that there is an economic opportunity here. It makes a neighborhood more walkable. A grocery store is a place where people see their neighbors. All of that builds a community.
You currently have a pop-up shop in the Austin community, what other services do you provide?
EA: We have a residential delivery service from the city of Chicago into the western suburbs. We also have a daily delivery service where we provide produce for small business caterers.
What is the greatest challenge with this work?
EA: Initially it was staffing. I was the only employee. In 2019, we hired two full-time staff members. Adding additional staff can be challenging at times. I am trying to develop a customer base in the Austin Community so we can employ more people in the community to help us with this work.
What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
EA: Seeing our community grow. We currently have eight community partners, including Westside Health Authority, Austin Coming Together, Bethel New Life, Windy City Harvest, and By the Hand Club. Through this experience, I had to learn to step out of my own way and create relationships with great community partners like By the Hand Club that allows us to do community markets. I also learned how to prepare myself for the drastic changes that come along with this work, like going to see my therapist.
How can the community support the work you are doing?
EA: The primary way of supporting this work is by becoming a customer. The more customers we gain, the more jobs we can provide. When we create more jobs, we attract more investors into the community. We are also always looking for people who have special skills in finance or marketing that they would like to share or even mentor. We can use all of that help.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to do something positive in their own communities but does not know where to start?
EA: Start small. Come up with an idea and then run with it. You learn a lot by not doing too much at one time. Also, look at the needs of your community and try to fill those in.
For more information on Forty Acres pop-up market and delivery service, visit their website: https://www.fortyacresfreshmarket.com or come out to their market at 5051 W Chicago Ave. Every second weekend of the month.