West Side popup store doubles as case study

Forty Acres Market wants to prove that Austin 'deserves fresh food,' too

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By F. AMANDA TUGADE

Contributing Reporter

For the past few weeks, 21-year-old Latanya Johnson has been working on a plan that will help her live a healthier lifestyle, and she knew the first step she'd need to make was to change her eating habits. 

With an interest in starting a plant-based diet – which consists of eating more unrefined foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains – Johnson has made small, conscious efforts to shop smarter at the grocery store, but she finds it difficult, especially when her community doesn't have many supermarkets, only convenience stores. 

"We don't have many healthy options. We have more fast food options," said Johnson, who lives in Austin. 

After hearing about Forty Acres Fresh Market's tent on the corner of West Chicago and Mayfield Avenues from her boyfriend, she decided to stop by the morning of Friday, July 20, and see what it had to offer. 

"I think it's really nice," Johnson said, after picking up some fresh produce. She even stayed to watch guest chef, Mary Mora, of Proviso Partners for Health, demonstrate how to make a basil fruit salad and basic vinaigrette. Though Johnson shared that Pete's Fresh Market in Oak Park is within walking distance from her home, it is her only choice, and she wants to see more full-service grocery stores available in Austin and on the greater 

"People in this neighborhood want to buy fresh food," said Forty Acre's founder, Elizabeth Abunaw, 38, during an interview on Saturday.  

"Either they get what's little as available [to them] at the corner stores or they travel further to get it," she said. "My goal for fresh foods is to keep those dollars in the community, so they don't have to go elsewhere." 

Since the beginning of this month, Abunaw has taken over the Boombox Austin, a short-term rental space made for small business owners and startup companies. There, she filled her space with boxes of ginger, bags of grapes, bulks of spinach and more. Next to the Boombox, she has propped up a tent with several tables underneath, displaying apples, oranges and plums to onions and green tomatoes. 

Throughout July, she invited different restaurants and local chefs to show off quick, easy recipes for her customers to try at home. While the last day for Forty Acres at the Boombox is July 30, Abunaw still has a few things stored for her final days. 

On July 26, the PCC Community Wellness Center's team will be there from 10 a.m. to noon to host blood pressure screenings and provide assistance for those enrolling in Affordable Care Act health plans. On July 28, Chicago Style Vegan will make an appearance from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a cajun cooking demonstration from noon to 4 p.m. 

Before this, Abunaw hosted popup markets every month since January of this year, with her first at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center, also on West Chicago Avenue. She quickly branched out to suburban Maywood, West Humbolt Park and of course, Austin. In that time, she built relationships with different community leaders, organizations and consumers to better understand their needs. 

But, Abunaw's dream for Forty Acres is to turn it into a store, where she can also sell a variety of meat and prepared food. She wants to have a permanent place for customers like Johnson and many others she has met along the way to go to and shop at. 

"If I really want to run a store, I have to run a store," she said, noting because of Boombox, Forty Acres has been open seven days a week this July. "It just so happens that the Boombox is here in the neighborhood where I first started this – right in the neighborhood that gave me the idea for it. So, I was like, 'OK, let's rent the Boombox and see if this could actually work.'" 

Abunaw's idea for Forty Acres came after she "accidentally wound up" in Austin for the first time a few years ago. Abunaw, a New York native, moved to Chicago in 2012 to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Shortly after graduating, she worked as a secret shopper and was sent to run an errand on the West Side.  

"I had no spatial perception of this city," Abunaw said, noting she and her classmates ventured through only a handful of neighborhoods, including the Loop, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, River North and Wicker Park. 

By the time Abunaw reached Austin, she found herself lost in a sea of fast food joints and liquor stores. She recalled needing to withdraw cash from an ATM machine, and "when I looked for a bank, I didn't see a bank. I didn't see a CVS or a Walgreens. So, I looked for a grocery store, and I couldn't find one here. I was like, 'Wait, something's going on here.'

"It occurred to me that the basic businesses that make up the foundation of a neighborhood – the economic foundation of a neighborhood – were missing," she said. "That leaves the questions: Where do people eat? Where do people work? Where do people do their banking? If you don't have a car, how do you get anything if nothing's accessible?"

Abunaw toyed with these thoughts, often "saying that somebody should" put a grocery store on the West Side that sold fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables, but it wasn't until last year when she finally decided to make the move and bring Forty Acres into fruition. After losing her job in the fall of 2017, she took that as a sign to explore entrepreneurship and invest in her vision. 

As for naming her business, Forty Acres, Abunaw said she chose something that "spoke to black Americans," as well as aligned with her mission of providing natural products and "reminded us that we are one of America's original farmers." 

Forty-six-year-old Trevia Crumiell, a customer who stopped by Forty Acres on Friday, shared Abunaw's sentiment. Crumiell, a resident of Humbolt Park, said she appreciates Forty Acres' presence on the West Side. 

"It's needed because you have to go so far to find fresh fruits and fresh vegetables, and when you do, you know, [other customers] don't look like you," she said. "When they don't look like you and they're looking at you, there's a judgment. … [Forty Acres] is welcoming."

That's not the first time Abunaw has heard that either. She explained how there are all of these misconceptions "that people in this community don't know about healthy foods." 

What she wants others to know about her work with Forty Acres on the West Side and underserved communities is simple: "We deserve fresh food just as anybody else."

CONTACT: fatugade@gmail.com    

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