When Liz Abunaw set out to launch her startup grocery service in Chicago's West Side, she said she wanted a name that would speak directly to black Americans: Forty Acres Fresh Market.
"It's an homage to the unfulfilled promise to freed slaves for 40 acres and a mule," Abunaw told CBSN, referring to Special Field Order No. 15 issued by General William T. Sherman in 1865. The directive designated land along the coastlines of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida for freed people, but President Andrew Johnson revoked it later that year.
"I wanted a name that was distinctly black, particularly black American, because the issue of not having access to healthy food where we live particularly hits our communities hard. And I find it to be a cruel irony that the people who basically built this country, were our country's first farmers who were so tied to the land, now live in land where they can get nothing that comes from the land," Abunaw explained.
The birth of her social enterprise was somewhat accidental. While running an errand, she ended up in the Austin neighborhood, unable to find an easily accessible grocery store, bank or pharmacy. "It was a very jarring, eye-opening look at this tale of two Chicagos," she recalled.
The New York native and graduate of University of Chicago's Booth School of Business decided to confront what she calls the "food apartheid." In 2018, she started organizing pop-up markets with fresh produce in Austin.
"If you want to change this neighborhood so that it is no longer an underserved neighborhood that is living with food inequality… you have to be part of the neighborhood's actual permanent infrastructure," Abunaw said. "And that has been my goal from day one."
The Forty Acres team was in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar location when the coronavirus pandemic forced their plans on hold. They canceled their pop-ups, only to receive a sudden surge in demand for grocery deliveries.
"So it turned out that our small little delivery service that barely served one person a day was all of a sudden serving over 200 people a week throughout the city," Abunaw said. "So it was a fast pivot."
While fighting for equity in food access, Abunaw is also witnessing a movement across the nation demanding justice for systemic racism and the death of black Americans under police brutality.
"I think that when we talk about what's happening right now with the abhorrent murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police — former police officers... it's a larger picture of inequality from how we're treated by police, how laws are applied to us, to the homes in which we live, to how lenders treat us, to how businesses treat us," Abunaw said. "It's the same inequality that people just keep kicking the can down the road, and it manifests itself in every single aspect of people's lives."
As of 2016, the median net worth of white families ($171,000) was almost 10 times greater than the median wealth of black families ($17,600), according to the Federal Reserve's most recent Survey of Consumer Finances. That wealth gap can be attributed to systemic inequality that traces back to America's history.
"You compound wealth generationally," Abunaw pointed out, adding, "Not economically repairing that damage [of slavery], and then compounding that damage with 100 years of racist economic policy — whether it be you don't include domestic servants like my great-grandmother in social security, or you redline black people so they can't get loans like my grandparents couldn't get a mortgage for their home so they had to do a seller-backed mortgage for double the going interest rate at the time."
With that context in mind, Abunaw and the West Side community are looking to build a future that champions economic justice.
"I don't remember a time in this country where massive change happened without some type of pain, without some type of discomfort," Abunaw said. "This idea that the Civil Rights Movement... was black people walking down the street singing hymns and Rosa Parks sitting nicely, is a disservice of our American educational system. It was ugly. It was violent. And it lasted a really long time."
She said the country could be seeing a similar kind of movement again because "America's never dealt with its s***."
"I know as a small business owner, I would never wanna see my business go up in flames. I would never wanna see my business looted. I would never wanna see my neighborhood trashed. I don't want anybody getting hurt," Abunaw said. "But am I surprised that this is where we are? Nah, I'm not surprised. You can only pile inequality that people know is going on, on people for so long before it explodes."
But with fundamental policy and structural changes, she said "maybe it doesn't have to get to a full-blown explosion."
"So my hope is that people are smart enough to see what's happening now and engage, and dismantle why there was even a need for Forty Acres in the first place," Abunaw said.