During a recent Food Tank Summit in Chicago, author, ESPN sports analyst, and NFL veteran Sam Acho discussed the ways that he is helping a Chicago neighborhood address food apartheid. The event, Technology and the Future of Our Food Systems, was hosted in partnership with Discovery Partners Institute, the University of Illinois Chicago, Chicagoland Food & Beverage, Chartwells, and IL Agri-Food Alliance.
In 2020, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Acho received a call from a friend, calling on him to act. “A lot of us in here,” Acho says, “want to fight for justice. We see injustice, we want to solve it.”
Inspired to act, Acho reached out to a fellow nonprofit leader in Chicago. During that initial call, he was asked to truly listen to the pain, concerns, and doubts community members had. Acho did this and reached out to fellow athletes from the Chicago area, asking them to do the same.
Together, they visited the neighborhood of Austin, and they were struck by the lack of supermarkets contrasted with the prevalence of liquor stores. Through conversations with local residents, Acho and his colleagues learned what the community really wanted and asked: “What if we can buy up one of these liquor stores and flip it and turn it into a food mart? Would you all want something like this?”
When the community members responded with a resounding yes, Acho began to fundraise with his friends, raising around US$500,000.
“We all have our things,” Acho explains. “For some of us, it’s influence because we’re in politics; we can change laws. For others of us it’s a voice. We can write articles, we can be on camera. For others of us, it’s money…Use what you have.”
With the funds raised, they were able to purchase a liquor store and turn it over to the young people in the neighborhood to “lead the charge,” Acho says.
Over the next four weeks, residents worked to build Austin Harvest, a pop-up mart offering fresh food to the community. The market also offered employment at a time in the pandemic when jobs were unavailable for youth.
“It didn’t take this heroic effort,” Acho says, “it literally took us showing up and leaning in.”
Listen to the full conversation with Sam Acho on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to learn about the evolution of the pop-up mart into a permanent store, Acho’s efforts to provide opportunities for youth, and his forthcoming book.
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