The Austin Food Co-op wants to open a co-op style grocery store on the West Side, but they need to figure out the details and get residents on board. The effort launched this July with the help of a start-up grant from the Chicago Community Trust.
The co-op doesn’t currently have a location in mind or a clearly developed organizational structure. For now, members are trying to simply spread the word about their concept and educate residents about what a co-op is. They’re also working to get enough elected officials, faith leaders and community organizations on board to make the effort viable.
A food cooperative is an organization where decisions about the production and distribution of its food are made by members. Vanessa Stokes, a coordinator at Austin Co-Op, said that that the store would be open to everyone.
“Folks [would] pay a membership fee and get a discount in the store,” Stokes explained. “They would be the part of running the store, deciding what type of goods are sold in the store, the hiring and other operational functions — the members of the store will be part of that voting.”
As Stokes explained, it was important for them to create something where Austin residents are stakeholders.
The idea for the Austin Food Co-Op sprang from Safer Through Unity, an initiative launched by the United Way of Chicago and Chicago Community Trust. According to its website, the initiative focused on three neighborhoods — Austin, Brighton Park and Little Village. In each neighborhood, it gathered together a group of local residents and asked them to come up with something that would make their communities safer and more secure.
Stokes said that she became involved in her capacity as a volunteer project coordinator for Austin Coming Together.
“We came together and figured out that we wanted to start a co-op,” she explained. “If we have healthier food options in Austin, it would lead to many things, like economic development, which could stop violence, and [make the community healthier].”
The Chicago Community Trust provided a $16,000 grant to help them get the co-op off the ground.
“It’s like a pilot kind of program, to see if this viable within Austin,” Stokes said.
Since then, they have been setting the groundwork for the co-op. They teamed up with students from the University of Illinois at Chicago to do a feasibility study of potential store sites.
Stokes explained that they are currently looking at three areas, including the intersection of Central Avenue and Corcoran Place near the Central/Lake Green Line ‘L’ station; the former Moo & Oink grocery store near Madison Street and Cicero Avenue; and some space on the Austin portion of Chicago Avenue.
“We want to capture the Chicago Avenue market because of the Chicago Avenue Economic Thrive Zone and economic development going on in Chicago Avenue,” Stokes said. “And with the new fire and police academy building on Chicago Avenue, it’s going to be a viable thoroughfare for a grocery store.”
On Oct. 20, the Austin Food Co-op will hold an invitation-only dinner for elected officials, faith leaders, members of community organizations and residents with large social networks.