Sam Acho, Chicago Athletes Open Food Mart In Austin: 'We're Seeing Real Change Happen'

A coalition of Chicago athletes and sports executives united to open Austin Harvest.
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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- As the issue of racial injustice came to the forefront of society, NFL veteran linebacker Sam Acho united with a group of 10 local professional athletes who wondered how they could create change.

Acho and those 10 athletes came together on June 4 at the By The Hand Kids Club in Chicago's west side Austin neighborhood, met with local kids and police and formed the idea to fund a food mart in a food desert.

They planned to buy out one of the 17 liquor stores in Austin and rebuild it into just the third food mart in the area. Soon, word spread with Chicago athletes and organizations. The coalition grew and grew, and a plan came into action.

On Wednesday, the Austin Harvest food mart held its soft opening in the neighorbood -- a little more than two months after Acho and his team planned to make change for a better Chicago and world. It's a temporary tented food mart that will be operated three days a week, run by teenagers who call Austin home.

Acho and these athletes are planning for the construction of a two-story building for the full Austin Harvest location.

"It's real," Acho said. "We're in touch, we're excited, we're overjoyed, because this is becoming a reality."

The coalition grew to more than 20 athletes and sports executives -- from Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to Bears general manager Ryan Pace and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It includes members of the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, Sky and Northwestern. Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a friend of Acho's, was also a donor.

Inside of Austin Harvest on Wednesday were tables spaced for social distancing, with one teenager working each stand. Donovan Allison, 15, served oranges and green beans to a busy line of shoppers. Jeremiah Fuller, 16, worked a stand of nutrition bars and was busy stocking.

The group of athletes understood the food mart could both replenish a food desert and also provide jobs to teenagers, who will be receiving paychecks as employees of Austin Harvest. The opening meant much more as residents of the neighborhood.

"It really shows how much of an impact the youth can have upon the community," Allison said.

Austin Harvest sent along food and memorabilia through overnight delivery to all of its donors. With each sports league operating with strict health protocols, most couldn't attend Wednesday. Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis and outfielder Jason Heyward were playing a doubleheader at Wrigley Field on Wednesday afternoon. Trubisky and the Bears are working through training camp and the start of full-contact practices.

"It's not just doing stuff on social media, it’s actually getting together with the community to try to make a positive difference," Trubisky said Tuesday. "This is something that we felt is very important, to get down into one of the neighborhoods that needed help.

"It’s going to make a big difference in that community, and that’s something that we wanted to do. Hopefully it’s a trickle effect throughout the city that we can get going. But we just want to make that positive impact, come together and make a difference in the city.”

Sky forward Jantel Lavender was the lone athlete able to attend Wednesday. While the Sky play in the WNBA bubble in Florida, she's recovering in Chicago from foot surgery. It allowed her to join Acho and support the food mart.

Lavender was moved knowing they had torn down a liquor store and made a difference.

"Just to add to (Austin), to know what black communities are putting out there like liquor stores -- people need fresh food," Lavender said. "People need to eat. It means everything that we have this platform to be able to be here, to be able to come out here as professional athletes of color and show the community, 'Hey, we want our communities to thrive and to be better.' To be able to actually be here means everything.

"It's my heart. It's my drive. It's what I live for right now."

Austin Harvest will operate every Monday, Wednesday and Friday into October. The coalition of athletes continues to maintain conversation through a group chat and is making plans for what's next. After all, this was a group committed to lasting change.

Acho and the athletes are also seeking solutions for stemming gun violence in Chicago. Their efforts will persist as Austin Harvest brings jobs, benefit and impact to its community.

"Often times, people talk about change," Acho said. "Now, we're seeing real change happen."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.