Teens Turn Liquor Store Into Fresh Food Market in Vulnerable Neighborhood

Chicago teens worked together to turn a tumultuous year into a seed of hope and kindness for their local community. Their city was hit hard by COVID-19, followed by mass riots responding to the death of George Floyd; two events that highlighted significant inequalities throughout the city. Instead of letting these realities leave them feeling defeated, however, these teens saw an opportunity to create positive change. In a neighborhood that had previously struggled with a lack of resources for fresh, healthy foods, they decided to serve their community by transforming a looted liquor store into an open-air food market.

The project was funded by Chicago Bears’ Sam Acho and ‘By the Hand Club’, of which the teens were members. However, it was the kids that came up with the idea and did all of the heavy liftings to bring the project to life. 

Azariah Baker, one of the teens that helped organize Austin Harvest, explained in an interview with Block Club Chicago, “We’ve been behind the scenes completely, as well.” Baker elaborated, stating, “We’ve discussed how we want to show our market, where we wanted our market to be, what we sell, what we look like. This is who runs it.”

Hours spent in healing circles hosted by ‘By the Hand Club’ afforded the group of teens time to brainstorm and collaborate on ways to focus their frustrations surrounding the recent civil unrest. They talked about food scarcity in their neighborhood and a history of neglect throughout Chicago’s West Side that had only gotten worse since the George Floyd lootings and riots. 

“Food is a basic necessity. But it’s also a basic necessity we don’t have access to,” Baker said to Block Club Chicago

Upon realizing that these kids were committed to addressing this issue, local community members joined the cause to support their mission. Chicago athletes worked together to raise $500,000 towards tearing down the abandoned and looted liquor store, giving the teens access to a permanent location for their project. ‘By the Hand Club’ provided architectural resources for the kids to help design the market. The Hatchery Chicago even offered their support, providing entrepreneurship and business training for the teens as they navigated implementing their plans.

Not only did this project offer significant training and an opportunity to be of service and effect change in their local community, but it also created afterschool jobs for these By the Hand youths. As a result, they have been able to be inspired and motivated by the experience while also putting a little extra money in their pockets.

Fellow co-creator of Austin Harvest, Kieth Tankson, told Block Club Chicago, “This is my first job… And also, all the trainings that we get, it’s really building us so we can be entrepreneurs later on. That means we can do so much more. We don’t have to just be bound to this one thing.”

It only took them two months to open Austin Harvest and this group of teens doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. In fact, they hope that they’ll eventually be able to turn the outdoor market into an actual grocery store, providing year-round fresh food to their hometown.

Baker noted that their work creating Austin Harvest is evidence that, with the right resources and a little motivation, any challenge can be solved. “We’re popping up with the question as to why our community doesn’t look as great as everybody else’s,” Baker stated to Block Club Chicago. “This took us two months to do. We are the blueprint. So think about how much you can build off of this over time.” 

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