Austin Harvest, a fresh food market run by students from By The Hand Club’s after school program, received a $250,000 Chicago Recovery Plan Community Development Grant last month.

Between this and By The Hand’s fundraising, the nonprofit now has enough money to build something it has long sought — a permanent physical space that will allow them to keep the market open year-round instead of just during the warmer months.

Since it launched in the summer of 2020, the market has been using the lot at 423 N. Laramie Ave. The new 2,500-square-foot indoor market is being built at the same location, with the goal of finishing up construction in time for the winter holiday season. 

Since launching in 2001, the By the Hand Club for Kids after school program has expanded its presence throughout Chicago, with the Austin campus near the Laramie/Lake Green Line ‘L’ station growing to several buildings.

The concept for the market emerged in the wake of civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd. The rioting led to the few grocery stores in Austin having to close for over a week. The pandemic also saw food pantries struggling to feed the sudden spike in demand, exacerbating existing inequities. 

When By the Hand asked the students what their concerns were, food insecurity emerged as a major theme. The idea of turning a looted liquor store into a grocery store morphed into an outdoor market that would give way to a physical market once they had enough money to build one. 

 Andraya Yousfi, By the Hand’s director of partnerships and development, said that Austin Harvest has been getting produce from Jewel Osco.

“They approached us last year,” she said. “Jewel sells to us at wholesale cost and we sell it back to the community at the wholesale cost, and provide free delivery.” 

Yousfi added that they keep the more expensive products such as blueberries affordable to the community, using fundraising dollars to subsidize the cost.  

She explained that the purpose of the market is to provide fresh fruits and vegetables in a food desert and to provide hands-on training for the students in their program. Fifteen Austin students from the 8th through 12th grades take part in the program for 12-week stretches, learning skills such as customer service, banking, money management and budgeting. The students also get a stipend.

Yousfi said that the indoor space will allow Austin Harvest to operate year-road, expand their storage and refrigerate perishables on site. Austin Harvest already works with the Austin Eats initiative to donate food to organizations that need it.

“We’ve been doing that before, but we’ll be able to do it more efficiently [once the building is constructed],” Yousfi said.

Austin Harvest was able to raise $650,000, and the city grant is enough to cover the remaining costs. The project officially broke ground in May. Yousfi said that they were proud to have Structure Re-Right Inc., “a certified woman- and minority-owned general contractor with deep roots on Chicago’s West Side” as the project’s general contractor. She said, even if there are supply chain issues, they are reasonably confident that they will complete the project on time.

As the construction starts, students will hold several pop-up markets throughout the city and train for managing the indoor market.

“We’re really ramping up training and getting our students ready to run the indoor store as opposed to an outdoor store,” Yousfi said. “We’d be able to have 100 to 200 customers, and no rain, no Chicago weather will stop us. That’s what we’re excited about.”

In a statement to the media, Austin Harvest founding member Azariah Baker, who is currently a senior at East Garfield Park’s Westinghouse College Prep, 3223 W. Franklin Blvd., said that she was impressed with how important the market has become to the community.

“We knew that we could make a difference through Austin Harvest, but we’re truly overwhelmed by the impact it has had in our community,” she said. “The best part is knowing that we’ve laid the groundwork for our friends and classmates to serve the Austin neighborhood for years to come.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...