Alt_, an artist-led nonprofit organization based in Chicago, is taking on food scarcity in underserved neighborhoods one pop-up market at a time.
“The medium of art is within the symbolic,” said Jon Veal, cofounder and creative director of Alt_, which aims to revitalize communities through art and culture. “Exhibitions are great, but to make a change you need more than a painting.”
Since its founding in 2016, Alt_, pronounced Alt Space, has launched a variety of community-led initiatives, such as Project Stamp, a family photo day which helped reframe the Chicago neighborhood called Austin as a community rather than a violence-ridden area, and Faith in Action, an emergency program that distributed 650 care packages on the West and South side of Chicago to help rebuild neighborhoods affected by the looting after George Floyd was killed at the hands of police.
“The looting in Chicago did nothing but highlight the problems that were there already,” said Veal. He was aware that the underserved communities of Chicago were dealing with issues like food insecurity and scarcity, but the overwhelming response to the Faith in Action care packages made him realize he had to take matters into his own hands.
This is how Alt_’s latest endeavor, Alt Market, a community pop-up grocery space, was born. The organization began to build shelves on the side of Austin Town Hall, which was previously used for Alt_’s Project Stamp, and stock them with everyday grocery essentials for the community to take as they needed. In addition, those who had extra food could leave products there as well. “The idea was drop what you have, take what you need,” Veal said.
At first, Alt_ partnered with stores and restaurants to stock shelves with day-old food that was still edible, but unsellable. But as demand increased, Alt_ needed to find new ways to source food and funds. Enter Grocery Run Club, a community-driven initiative that partners with organizations to provide fresh produce and everyday necessities to underserved neighborhoods in Chicago. Using the funds from its monthly donation model, Grocery Run Club is able to shop for and restock the shelves of the Alt Market each week. Veal hopes that this partnership will build trust with the Austin community and eventually empower it to sustain the project.
After hearing of the success of the Austin City Hall Alt Market, Alt_ was approached by the Rebuild Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting artists and communities. The two organizations came together to build a second pop-up location at the Southside Market, an old, abandoned convenience store. In addition, a third Alt Market is planned for a yet-to-be-determined location in Inglewood.
When asked why these pop-ups are experiencing such success, Frida Plata, research fellow for Alt_, said, “It’s a response to the larger systematic problems, but it’s also extremely local. The community is trying to make sense of and solve this problem for themselves.” Veal echoed that statement, “We are a faith-based organization, and we have faith in people, and faith in the good of people. We have a need to feed one another.”