A West Side businessman is giving away groceries to residents in a food desert as he works to open a full-service grocery store.

Al Person plans to open North Lawndale Fresh Meat & Produce Market at 628 S. Pulaski Road in the coming weeks. It will be Lawndale’s only Black-owned grocery store. But due to the dire scarcity in places to buy food, Person partnered with local nonprofits to hold food distributions as he awaits city approval to open.

“We figured in between that time, we might as well get some use out of it,” Person said. “People are saying, ‘Wow, this is what you’ll be carrying when you open? We’ll definitely be shopping here.’”

Residents can pick up fresh produce and meat at the food giveaways, which start at 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 628 S. Pulaski Road.

Many residents have to travel miles to get to a grocery store, and many people don’t trust the quality of the food of other local supermarkets, Person said. He organized the giveaways so residents would have a trusted and community-oriented place to get quality food until more options emerge, he said.

“We’re giving them the same stuff that they would pay good money for. We’re giving them the sense that this is the type of things the store will have when it opens,” Person said.

The food donations come from nonprofits Sinai Chicago, HoJo Family Assistance and Stop The Violence #1, as well as from Person’s restaurant, 3Kings Jerk.

The giveaways essentially work as a free grocery store: Residents can pick whatever items they’d like from aisles full of fruits, veggies, meat, seafood and poultry. Giving people a choice in what kinds of food they get allows them to feel dignified as they benefit from the program and ensures the foods they get are items they enjoy eating, Person said.

“It reduces waste. Often when organizations give away boxes of food, people don’t always eat that kind of food. People are only going to pick up what they need or what they want,” Person said.

So far, the giveaways have served 300 to 500 families each day.

Like much of the West Side, North Lawndale is considered by many to be a food desert, an area where residents must travel miles to buy to fresh food. Lawndale has only one grocery store, a Freshway Market at 3240 W. Roosevelt Road.

In surrounding neighborhoods Austin and West Garfield Park, supermarket chains like Save A Lot and Aldi have closed suddenly within the past year, worsening the food scarcity for West Siders. The best way to ensure the community has necessities like food is for locals to own the businesses that provide those goods and services, Person said.

When Lawndale Meat & Produce Market opens in about six weeks, Person intends to source at least 85 percent of the food from Black farmers and Black-owned businesses.

“In this particular time, Black people especially, we need our own stores. We need to be able to feed ourselves,” Person said.

The food distributions follow the legacy of the Black Panther Party, which organized free breakfast programs, grocery giveaways and free medical clinics for Black communities that were neglected by corporations and the government, Person said.

“We tell people, ‘Only take what you need.’ We have a lot of people who are sick and suffering. … This program is for the single moms, the seniors, the working class and the sick and suffering,” Person said.

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