Chicago artists transform abandoned spaces into beautiful grocery installations

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A free grocery distribution center near Washington, DC
A free grocery distribution center near Washington, DC
Photo: Tom Williams (Getty Images)

New York and Oakland may have their Friendly Fridges to distribute food for people in need, but Chicago has a mini-chain of art installation/grocery stores. So there.

The installation-stores are the work of Alt_, a nonprofit founded by Black artists that, according to Block Club Chicago, “uses art as a way to rewrite the narratives of scarcity embedded into Black communities on the South and West sides.” Many neighborhoods in those parts of the city are food deserts. In June, Alt_ gave away hundreds of grocery packages to people whose access to food had been cut off by the coronavirus closures and the vandalism and looting after the protests against the killing of George Floyd. The organization wanted to continue the work, but it also wanted to maintain its mission as an arts organization. So, inspired by the Little Free Library movement, the artists decided to transform abandoned storefronts into outdoor community grocery “stores” where people can take or leave food as they need it.

Members of Alt_ put up plywood, installed shelves, and stenciled the messages “Take & Give” and “For The People.” A team of volunteers drops off fresh groceries, supplies, and sometimes books several times a week.

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“The more consistency that we show, being able to put things out, the more we see neighbors,” said Alt_ cofounder Jon Veal. “The neighbors come and have been adding and taking and really making it their own, which is what it was meant for.”

So far, there are two Alt_ Markets, one in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, and the other in Grand Crossing on the South Side.

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Alt_ has partnered with Grocery Run Club, another nonprofit that allows people to donate $10 or more every month to provide fresh produce for people in need. The goal is to turn Alt_ Market into a long-term and sustainable source of food instead of just a summertime popup.