American Heart Association Social Impact Fund targets health on South, West Sides
Born and raised in Upstate New York, Liz Abunaw moved to Chicago in 2012 to attend the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The 39-year-old entrepreneur was unprepared for the “tale of two cities” she encountered in her first visit to the West Side.
“I had to run an errand that took me to Austin. I hadn’t been that far west before, and it’s when I learned what they mean by Chicago being two cities,” said Abunaw, of West Town.
“Looking for a grocery store, there were none,” said the founder/CEO of Forty Acres Fresh Market, a two-year-old enterprise that started out as a fresh produce pop-up store to bring healthier food options to that food desert.
Abunaw’s commitment to that mission took her through many iterations, finally landing on a monthly weekend pop-up store in partnership with the West Side Health Authority.
Winners are being announced Thursday. The two other Chicago enterprises include:
- Sweet Potato Patch, a one-year-old firm using smart technology and GPS tracking systems to deliver healthy food options to residents in Far South Side food deserts.
- West Side United, a racial and health-equity focused collaborative made up of six West Side hospitals and several community groups to address a boggling life expectancy gap between West Side communities and those a few miles east in the Loop.
Launched with a $1 million Blue Cross Blue Shield investment, the AHA grants seek to address the nation’s longstanding health gaps by income and race. Research has shown those gaps are fueled by determinants e.g. socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood, employment, access to health care, etc.
The unique grants are open to any grassroots effort demonstrating promise to address such determinants, not just well-established initiatives or larger organizations.
“One of the things we’re really trying to do is shift the narrative around these communities,” said Raymond Guthrie, AHA’s managing director of the fund.
“I think a lot of times people think of these areas of the West Side and South Side as areas to be saved. What we’d like to say is there are a lot of great organizations in these areas taking on the challenges of transforming their own communities, and if supported appropriately, we think they can find really cost-effective, scalable solutions,” Guthrie said.
The winners — five are in Boston, and three in Flint, a city still suffering from 2014 water contamination — shared $300,000. The 11 efforts address a wide range of issues, from food and jobs to housing and education, in hopes of changing health trajectories in their communities.
Abunaw’s Forty Acres Fresh Market offers a pop-up fresh produce store every second weekend of the month, Friday through Sunday, at 5051 W. Chicago Ave. — the next is scheduled for this weekend. Her effort addresses food insecurity as well as jobs for ex-offenders. She plans on hiring several through a program run by West Side Health Authority.
The Roseland-based Sweet Potato Patch also is addressing food insecurity but spreads its help even further, to Down South, by partnering with struggling black farmers there.
“I grew up in a food desert — I lived my whole life in Roseland. I moved to Chatham, and then Chatham became a food desert. I was frustrated that companies like Peapod didn’t deliver to our community, and the food deserts were getting worse and worse,” said Stacey Minor, the 47-year-old founder/CEO of the start-up delivering fresh produce and meal kits.
“The goal is to increase healthy food access by using Uber-like technology to get it to their door. This grant will allow us to reach as many people as we can. It’s not just about a lack of grocery stores; it’s about the health of people who live in these communities,” said Minor, who works out of a warehouse in Chatham.
“And on the other side of this are black farmers in the South who are struggling. We’re giving them an outlet to sell their products. I had a farmer tell me today that the suicide rate of black farmers has increased, and that this basically is a Godsend,” she said Wednesday.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois (BCBSIL) invested in the fund as part of broader efforts to impact issues keeping health care out of reach for many, said its chief medical officer, Dr. Derek Robinson. According to County Health Rankings, only 20% of a person’s overall health is determined by clinical medical care, while the rest is determined by social and economic factors and physical environment.
“We know that social factors such as income, education, housing, discrimination, access to transportation and violence are keeping people from being their healthiest selves. Supporting the Social Impact Fund is one way we’re looking to improve the health of our communities beyond the walls of hospitals and physician offices,” Robinson said.