Flamin’ Hot Cheetos won’t be on the shelves at a new corner store in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
Go Green Community Fresh Market is a profound departure from corner stores on the city’s South and West sides. No bulletproof glass or grimy floors. Plenty of sunlight and fresh produce.
Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) is the nonprofit operating and conceputalizing the corner store. And its decision not to stock Flamin’ Hots — which are ubiquitous in and associated with corner stores — was a real one.
“When we think about product selection, we want to make sure it’s accessible and healthy and quite affordable,” said Sana Syed of IMAN.
In the food landscape of Chicago, corner stores fill in the gaps in neighborhoods with few grocery options. But those corner stores often operate as unwelcoming and aesthetically unattractive storefronts crammed with junk food — setting off tension between Black customers and Arab store owners. Black patrons have often felt disrespected by the grocers and the lack of upkeep or offerings in those corner stores.
Go Green stocks vegan, halal and gluten free options. It’s not a health food store but incorporates various choices: inexpensive and cage-free eggs, cow’s milk and oat milk, for example. Familiar food brands are visible, as well. Inside, the space is bright with skylights and green paint. Fruits and vegetables greet customers as they walk in.
“For us, this is about a model, not just in Chicago. But as we’ve been talking about for many, many years. It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” said Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s executive director.
In 2010, IMAN started its Muslim Run campaign, using its cultural capital to connect with immigrant store owners while elevating food access and justice as an issue in Black communities.
“Even with the immigrant stores, it’s been a delicate balance because we have not tried to over demonize or criminalize many refugees and immigrants that have come to the United States and end up operating in low-income Black communities. In many ways, they’re just simply victims of this whole middleman, minority phenomena where it’s easier to set up shop in low-income Black communities,” Nashashibi said.
He points out those store owners aren’t MBAs from the University of Chicago or Northwestern University.
The second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis is in a couple of months. Nashashibi thinks about how the death occurred outside of an Arab-owned corner store.
“Unfortunately, it will always be part of the story. The call to bring in the police to search Floyd came from inside the store over a supposed $20 counterfeit bill. And it once again raised, across the country, this issue at a very heightened moment of race consciousness and critical examination of racial inequities and ongoing anti-Black racism in all its forms across America. And immigrant-run stores had to confront that reality, as well. And it was a painful moment,” Nashashibi said.
Neighborhoods lacking sufficient grocery options are populated with residents who have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. Through the years, IMAN has conducted surveys, gotten grant money to help corner stores buy fresh fruit, and eventually bought the building at 63rd and Racine where Go Green is located. The result is a culmination of activism and organization.
In addition to rethinking how corner stores can thrive in Black spaces, Go Green is confronting policy shortcomings. The Illinois food stamp program, Link, prevents customers from using their benefits to buy hot food. Go Green has a kitchen and will sell cold sandwiches and meals that customers can pay for with their Link card.
“We’re also going to be trying to make sure that we are labeling our foods, in terms of what’s diabetic friendly, what is heart healthy, what is high fiber,” Syed said.
Go Green’s manager is Darren Jeters, and he stocked freezers and shelves a week before the store’s Tuesday grand opening. Growing up in the West Side Lawndale area, his family relied on corner stores.
“You can’t get any bell peppers. A lot of the time we were eating [frozen] meals, and those things are just packed in sodium,” Jeters said.
Go Green is what he imagined a corner store could be.
“Business to me is an art form,” Jeters said. “This business here is going to be one that is interwoven into the fabric of the community.”
Ever since construction started on Go Green, the corner store across the street started upgrading its exterior. And that’s the point of this larger IMAN corner store campaign — pushing immigrant-owned businesses on the South and West sides to do better.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. The correct spelling is Rami Nashashibi.