CHICAGO, Ill. – The shopping frenzy at the outset of the pandemic gave many Americans their first taste of what it’s like to not have access to basic necessities. But it’s a reality that communities of color have faced for decades.
A chance errand to Chicago’s west side taught entrepreneur Liz Abunaw that access to groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables was a luxury.
“I'm on a commercial corridor in a Black neighborhood and none of this stuff is readily available and it didn't sit right with me,” said Abunaw.
The New York native and business school graduate decided to do something about it. She started a social enterprise to bring fresh produce to the neighborhood.
“When I was thinking of a name for this business, I wanted something that was distinctly rooted in Black culture,” said Abunaw.
Forty Acres Fresh Market is a reference to Special Field Orders No. 15. Issued by General William T. Sherman in 1865, it promised 40 acres of land and mules for freed slaves to settle land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It was revoked months later by President Andrew Johnson.
“It's a cruel irony that the descendants of this country's first farmers now live in neighborhoods where they can get nothing from the earth,” she said.
While more than 23 million Americans live in so-called "food deserts," researchers say food inequity disproportionately affects communities of color.
“What I see is this unequal food system in this country,” said Abunaw. “I started calling it by what it is. It's food apartheid.”
Originally, Abunaw started with pop-up markets and a plan to go brick and mortar. But the pandemic shifted operations. Home deliveries have more than tripled.
“One thing the pandemic did was it made everybody realize what it could be like to live with food insecurity even if you're more affluent,” said Abunaw.
Each day, warehouse supervisor Tracy Smith goes through the online orders, selecting and hand packing fruits and vegetables for what they call a $30 "mix-it-up bag."
“I just went through the line and picked what I thought went together,” said Smith.
A recipe card helps consumers decide how to cook the fresh produce.
For now, Abunaw is focused on continuing to scale up as she chips away at food inequity, one neighborhood at a time.
“The consumers here deserve goods and services that are of high quality. I think that they deserve to have their dollars respected and that's what we do.”