A program designed to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to Austin through weekend popup shops recently received a federal grant that could help it become a more permanent presence in the community.
The Austin Grocery Initiative, which is a collaboration between Forty Acres Fresh Market and the Westside Health Authority, received $185,000 in financial assistance from Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a new grants program through the United States Department of Agriculture. The Austin Grocery Initiative was one of 23 grantees awarded financial and technical assistance grants.
"Ten projects received a total of $1.4 million in financial assistance and another 13 projects received a total of $400,000 in technical assistance awards," according to a statement released by the Health Foods Financing Initiative in August.
More than 240 applicants from across the country applied for the funding through a competitive process that "was open to eligible fresh food retail projects seeking financial and technical assistance to overcome the higher costs and initial barriers to entry in underserved areas," the statement reads. Reinvestment Fund, a financial institution that specializes in investing in low-income communities, administered the Health Food Financing Initiative's inaugural funding round.
Since May, Forty Acres Fresh Market and the Westside Health Authority have jointly operated a popup market on the second weekend of each month at 5051 W. Chicago Avenue while also attempting to develop a 3,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar location in Austin. The market offers low-priced, high-quality fruits and vegetables to area residents.
"The plan is to run the monthly popup markets for a year while the store is in development," said Elizabeth Abunaw, the founder of Forty Acres Fresh Market. Abunaw, who wrote the grant, said that she plans to run the monthly popup markets for a year while developing the physical store. Forty Acres also received an additional $150,000 grant from the American Heart Association in August.
"This is the most cost-effective way for Forty Acres to build a customer base before a store opens while immediately increasing the availability of fresh food in the neighborhood," Abunaw said, adding that the market is a critical resource in an area that has very few places where residents can purchase fresh produce.
"This area needs healthy food," Abunaw said. "On Chicago Avenue, in particular, there's nothing food-wise — from the beginning of Oak Park all the way to West Humboldt Park. Food for Less is a mile north, Save A Lot is a mile north, Leamington is a mile south on Madison. If you don't have a car, there's just nothing. And even if you do have a car, there's nothing convenient right there and Austin is way too large a neighborhood to have such a long stretch of a major commercial artery with virtually no fresh produce."
Abunaw said that the Westside Health Authority has worked with Austin Village Chicago – Special Service Area 72 (also known as SSA 72) to help her get her business off the ground. A Special Service Area, referred to as Business Improvement Districts in other cities, is a way for city communities to leverage tax revenue in order to boost local economic growth. In each SSA, property owners pay additional taxes to help fund for things like streetscape improvements, among other enhancements and resources. Westside Health Authority is the service provider for SSA 72—the only Special Service Area in Austin.
Westside Health Authority has provided shuttle service to the monthly popup market from several senior residences in Austin through its Good Neighbor Campaign, an initiative launched by the nonprofit in 2016 in order to strengthen community bonds among residents on the West Side.
"For several decades, Austin residents have expressed an interest in a local option for fresh fruits and vegetables," said Morris Reed, the CEO of Westside Health Authority. "This project not only addresses the community desire to have healthy choices, but also provides investment into a growing retail environment along the Austin cultural corridor stretching west of Chicago on Chicago Avenue."
"Access to healthy food is about more than making sure all Americans have easy access to nutritious, affordable food—it is also about strengthening local economies and community infrastructure," said Don Hinkle-Brown, the president and CEO of Reinvestment Fund.
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