Some experts believe fall and winter 2020 could be one of the most difficult times across the U.S. Why? Well, the country is still in the throes of a global pandemic — leading in both the number of cases — more than 5 million — and deaths, with over 163,000 deaths as of Aug. 10, according to the World Health Organization. 

As a result, there’s a chance that people could return to panic-buying, forcing grocery stores to again limit quantities of certain foods and goods or risk shelves going bare again for weeks.

Black and Brown communities, already disproportionately affected by COVID-19, will again have to brace themselves to bear the consequences of systemic inequities, one of which includes access to fresh and affordable produce. 

In Chicago, Black residents are “nearly exclusively” the population experiencing food apartheid, according to a 2020 Gallagher report on the city’s food deserts. 

Fortunately, there are local start-ups providing fruits, vegetables and difficult to find ingredients more easily.  Meet three Black-owned grocery delivery services ready to meet community needs.

Smooth & Social Roots
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

I deliver everywhere, it doesn’t matter. If you appreciate what I’m doing and you give me a buzz, I’m coming to see you,” Edwards says warmly.

David Edwards delivered the first produce box from his South Side farm on Juneteenth this year. The destination was a customer’s home in Skokie, a northern suburb about 18 miles away. Edwards, founder of Smooth & Social Roots, says nowhere is too far.

“I deliver everywhere, it doesn’t matter. If you appreciate what I’m doing and you give me a buzz, I’m coming to see you,” he says warmly. “And we’re going to take a picture. That’s my reward.”

Smooth & Social Roots introduces healthy foods to many Black people — especially seniors — who don’t normally have access to it, he says. Growing up in the South Side’s Stateway Gardens housing project, Edwards remembers having very few options for fresh grocery. Years later, access in his old neighborhood – and on the West Side, where he currently lives – hasn’t improved.

Various inequities, from chronic health issues to lack of financial assistance for small businesses, inspire his work. Following the CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) model for just over three years, Edwards put Smooth & Social Roots into action after a month on his friend’s farm in Texas. His interest in agriculture, however, started while he was incarcerated, when he farmed melons, cucumbers and zucchini. He enrolled in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program after his release. 

More than two dozen subscribers currently get their goods through the Smooth & Social Roots website: a base box featuring collard greens, swiss chard, beets, purple haze carrots, blueberries, honey and more. While nothing can be removed from the box, customers can add items including watermelon and butternut squash. And don’t be surprised if you find something extra, such as okra, mustard greens and even recipes. 

Though his farm’s operations are limited in the winter months, Edwards buys wholesale to balance costs. His community farm stand, harvest days and pop-up markets at churches continue, but he expects delivery to increase as the pandemic heads toward fall and winter and weather conditions worsen. He also hopes to add more people to his team of four. Recently, he’s partnered with local aldermen — such as Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) and Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th Ward) —  for food sovereignty events where they discuss healthy food options. He’s also currently working on obtaining the paperwork to accept Link and other forms of payment aside from cash and credit. 

Smooth & Social Roots offers one, three and six-month subscriptions – no more than $60/month (delivery fee included) – and also fills one-time orders. Boxes are delivered bi-weekly on Fridays and Saturdays.

Forty Acres Fresh Market
Photo by Ofu Takor
Photo by Ofu Takor

Forty Acres Fresh Market manages the weekly city market at Austin Town Hall on Thursdays through Sept. 17.

After moving to Chicago in 2012, a misunderstanding of the city’s geography dropped Liz Abunaw, founder/owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market, in Austin – the West Side neighborhood currently at the heart of her mission to address food injustice. 

Upon her introduction to Austin, she noticed very quickly what the community didn’t have: a grocery store. A trip to the since-shuttered Stanley’s market in Lincoln Park — which managed to maintain bargain prices for 52 years ($1 for strawberries, Abunaw remembers) even after the neighborhood established itself as one of the wealthiest in Chicago — inspired her to bring that approach to produce to the West side. 

“The disconnect,” she says. “People there can pay $4/5.99 for strawberries – they pay it at Foxtrot, they pay it at Whole Foods. Very quickly after that experience, I knew it didn’t belong there. It belongs in Austin.” 

What started as Abunaw storing products in her home and car, then loading a U-Haul to bring to markets in 2018 is now a demanding, higher-profile delivery business. Before the pandemic, Forty Acres was bringing fruits and veggies to eight subscribers. Now, Abunaw counts more than 130 subscribers, not including one-time buyers she hopes to turn into returning customers.  The market also manages the weekly city market at Austin Town Hall on Thursdays through Sept. 17. 

Subscriptions start at $10 for a small “Mix It Up” box of fruits and vegetables, or either exclusively – and are delivered weekly, bi-weekly or monthly for an additional $6. Family-size orders are $30. Subscriptions can’t be customized, but items can be removed from individual orders made via Google doc on the market’s website. SNAP is an accepted form of payment, among others.

Abunaw hopes to find a way to continue indoor markets through the winter. Currently operating out of a warehouse space, Abunaw hopes to find the grocery store’s brick-and-mortar location by the fall.

“The most feedback we get from the neighborhood is, we want a store. We want a place where we can shop in our neighborhood. We want something clean, something affordable – that’s welcoming,” she says. “Getting a site, that’s where my focus is now.”

Oja Express
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

Right now, we have eight stores involved in the platform, but [have] 300 stores we’re targeting. We’re growing that quite quickly, and we’re very deliberate in working with these people first,” Boyede Sobitan says.

Despite their international aisles, chain grocery stores aren’t tailored to the needs or tastes of immigrant communities. In Chicago, food markets in these neighborhoods – smaller, usually family run – have struggled to sustain their operations in the face of gentrification, competition, inequity and now, COVID-19.

Oja Express, founded by Boyede Sobitan and Fola Dada – second and first-generation immigrants from Nigeria, respectively — aims to centralize that marketplace for Africans, Caribbeans, Middle Easterners, Indians and Latinx people.

Sobitan, who grew up in Uptown – what he dubs the African capital of Chicago –  calls these smaller shops, often cramped and crowded, a “perfect recipe for COVID.”

“Customers don’t want to be put at that risk, so we’ve actually leveraged our platform and gained more vendors and customers,” he said. Folks are still trying to figure out how to get their groceries, which they often can’t get from Mariano’s or Jewels or Whole Foods.”  

Delivering daily, shoppers pick a store through Oja Express’ website and fill their carts with sugar cane, plantain flour, traditional herbs, pepper sauces, spices and more.

Last year, Sobitan and Dada left their jobs to focus solely on Oja Express. They saw that as immigrants moved in and out of neighborhoods, hyper-local grocers didn’t have the tools to help families stay connected to the products and foods they love. 

“Right now, we have eight stores involved in the platform, but [have] 300 stores we’re targeting. We’re growing that quite quickly, and we’re very deliberate in working with these people first,” he said.

As fall and winter approach, Oja Express is looking to expand its team of delivery drivers to meet demand, as well as an intern pool to maintain connection through social media and other digital platforms. Extending experience in the tech industry to Black students and students of color is just as important to their mission. 

“Everybody that sells our product is from the communities we’re in,” he continues. “Our lawyers, our interns, the students we partner with. And we’re also proud to say we’re made in Chicago, so we want to convey that feel, that touch, that little bit of Chicago.”

Headshot of Jessi Roti
is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.