Artists turn West Side building into free grocery store

The markets, inspired by Little Free Libraries, are stocked with food donated by neighbors and nonprofits

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

An art installation has transformed an abandoned building near the Austin Town Hall into a gathering place where residents can get free food.

The pop-up food shop is a project of Alt _, an art nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the area. The group uses art as a way to rewrite the narratives of scarcity embedded into Black communities on the South and West sides.

People who need food can grab anything they see on the shelves installed on the outside of the shop, while those who are able are encouraged to leave their own excess nonperishable food items on the shelves.

The model is inspired by the Little Free Libraries scattered across Chicago neighborhoods, and it follows the same give-and-take principle.

"Our communities, we needed help long before George [Floyd] was murdered. Long before the looting, long before COVID, a lot of Black communities happened to be food deserts," said Alt_ co-founder Jon Veal.

The idea for the free market came after Alt_ gave away hundreds of care packages in June filled with groceries to help communities whose grocery stores and corner markets had shut down due to the pandemic and the riots. Businesses contacted the artists to chip in and donate groceries.

Alt_ wanted to tackle the longstanding issues with food access on the West Side, but Veal recognized the focus of the group must be on using art to enact social change.

So rather than just distributing food, the organizers decided to envision a self-sustaining model for how residents and neighborhood organizations might address food scarcity.

The artists converted previously vacant spaces and abandoned storefronts into makeshift food markets. They built shelves and installed them first in Austin, then at a site in Grand Crossing.

The Alt_ artists and their partners stock the shelves several times a week at each location, and as the project has picked up steam they've had more community participation.

"There are distributors who have more than enough supplies to be able to give, and it's just about finding that space for them to give," Veal said. "We're just artists. The art is symbolic. Symbolic gestures is our realm. But how can a symbolic gesture get these other types of people to start making some movements."

Since the market is out in the open, Alt_ is easily able to coordinate with volunteers to get groceries and supplies dropped off.

"The more consistency that we show, being able to put things out, the more we see neighbors," Veal said. "The neighbors come and have been adding and taking and really making it their own, which is what it was meant for."

Veal said neighbors have eagerly embraced the concept, so Alt_ Market has looked for ways to keep the free store stocked so the project can be self-sustaining.

The market has partnered with Grocery Run Club. The organization offers a subscription allowing people to chip in $10 or more a month that goes towards fresh produce for families in need.

Grocery Run Club co-founder Lucía Angel said the arrangement can help Alt_ Market become a long-term, reliable food source rather than a pop-up.

"It should be a sustainable idea where it can just go on and on and on," she said.

Donations can be made to Alt_ Market by subscribing to Grocery Run Club, or by contacting altspacechicago@gmail.com.

Grocery Run Club donates to other projects addressing food scarcity in the area, like the North Lawndale Community Garden, where people assemble produce boxes for neighborhood families.

"These problems stem from the segregation of the city and discrimination against black and POC people," said Jorge Saldarriaga, Grocery Run Club co-founder. "The overall focus is all coming together to build community and to specifically give these neighborhoods access to food."

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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