A café and fresh produce enterprise shows promise in solving food access issues. It’s called Southside Market. A Harris student helped create it.
Jason Winik

Late in 2020, Jason Winik saw a message on a UChicago Slack channel that caught his attention. It asked if anyone was interested in agricultural policy, food waste, and related environmental issues.

“I was like, ‘that’s me,’” recalled Winik, then in his first year at the Harris School of Public Policy. Winik responded and was introduced to Mabel Shiu, who was a second-year student at Chicago Booth and an experienced social entrepreneur. The two started chatting online, mostly about food insecurity.

Six months later, the idea that evolved from those conversations brought a $35,000 award from the prestigious John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge, a Booth competition where student teams pitch, Shark Tank style, to a committee of social and traditional entrepreneurs, impact investors, nonprofit leaders, and Booth alumni. The top three finishers walk away with seed money to start their ventures.

The enterprise that Winik, Shiu, and teammates Monica Meriweather, a UChicago Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management Student, and Jahnvi Vaidya, a Booth MBA student, proposed was Southside Market. It’s a fresh produce market and café providing healthy food access and business ownership opportunities on the South side of Chicago.

“You have this moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, six months ago, we were chatting on Zoom, spring-boarding ideas off each other and now, here we are,’” Winik said. “Now we have a chance to actually do something big here.”

Southside Market also impressed the American Heart Association. Over the summer, the AHA provided a $200,000 grant to the Southside Market team.

Residents’ feedback helped refine proposal

Food access has been a challenge for decades on Chicago’s South Side, where as much as 46 percent of the community lacks access to healthy food choices, according to Chicago Health Atlas. Although food distribution and pantries help, many residents don’t receive food provided by those outlets. Residents cite poor food quality, a lack of information, and timing issues, among other challenges.

Southside Market’s approach, developed through discussions with residents, community organizations in Greater Chatham, feedback from members of the Social New Venture Challenge committee, and additional research, centers on an estimated 1,000-square-foot market and café in partnership with community organizations.

“Southside Market is solving both sides of the supply and demand equation of food access,” the team stated in the plan summary. Simply increasing the number of grocery stores or opening big-box stores offering groceries often results in those stores being placed outside the most under-served communities, according to the report.

Southside Market’s model would feature a year-round supply of everyday-affordable produce and a rotating, community-curated menu in its café. When developed further, the venture would feature local chefs sharing recipes they can easily replicate at home. Local residents would run and work at the establishments.

A Zoom meeting with some of the Southside Market team.

The Southside Market team provided previews of the concept in April 2021, when the group opened a pilot pop-up tent at St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Chatham neighborhood and in August, when Southside Market organizers did the same at two events on the 75th Street Boardwalk.

The team was able to discover more about what residents wanted and needed in their grocery shopping, and how they’d prefer groceries to be offered. The information was crucial to the team refining its proposal.

“We want to make sure that the community we serve has a substantial role in how the company’s being structured, the food we provide, and how it is delivered,” Winik said. “We don’t want to come in and say, ‘This is what you should be buying, or ‘This is what you should cook for your family.’”

Common presence in successes

The Southside Market’s success was the latest in a series of strong showings for Harris participants in the Social New Venture Challenge and similar competitions.

Since Harris students began participating in the competitions, starting with Social New Venture Challenge in 2015, teams with Harris students have earned $192,500 in support and awards for projects they presented to a variety of competitions, including the Clinton Global Initiative University, Oxford Map the System Challenge, Social Venture New Challenge, Hult Million Dollar Prize, and Fels.

The first pitch made by Harris student Aviva Rosman, AB’10, MPP ’16, and her teammate Alex Niemczewski, AB’09, was BallotReady, which won first place in the 2015 SNVC and has grown to become a voter information and empowerment website active in all 50 states.

Ronald Gibbs, Program Director, Policy Entrepreneurship and Competitions

The common presence in those successes is Ronald F. Gibbs, director of the Policy Entrepreneurship and Competitions Program at Harris School of Public Policy. He is considered a national expert on public policy and has implemented successful public affairs and public relations campaigns in urban and rural affairs, health care, hunger relief, human rights, global poverty, and child welfare. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Gibbs was a driving force behind establishment of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

His role as coach, mentor, and advisor to Harris students interested in the Social New Venture Challenge began in 2014 when Gibbs was teaching “Leadership and Public Policy-Winning in the Endgame” at Harris. An assistant dean at Harris asked Gibbs if he would encourage Harris students’ participation in the Clinton Foundation Global Initiative University competition.

That work expanded to other competitions. Gibbs was named director of the program in 2021.

“It’s sort of a labor of love,” he said. “I’ve got a good intuitive sense, I think, when students come in with an idea, to see if it’s a good idea or just an OK idea. That gives me a jumpstart to be very candid with them. I try to be a startup person, to get them grounded.”

Southside Market’s potential to be replicated immediately impressed Gibbs.

“This is way pie-in-the-sky,” he said, “but they could franchise.”

Harris students like SNVC for the opportunity it offers to utilize the rigorous, data-driven, evidence-based research they’ve acquired, Gibbs said.

“This is taking those skillsets, applying them to a real-world situation, and coming up with an idea that can be viable,” he said. “You can test your mettle here and see if your skill sets are adaptable to certain situations. It’s for people who are really itching to see what they can do now to make a difference.”

Providing those student opportunities in a different venue is an important value-added component for the school as well, Gibbs said.

Winik, who said Gibbs has done “a fantastic job” raising awareness among Harris students and providing feedback to those who participate, agreed.

“SNVC provided me a kind of creative outlet to get involved in and address problems I cared about—food policy and food access—when I had no idea how to get into the sector or address those problems,” he said. “If you’re not sure how to address a problem and you have ideas, this is the way to do that.

“Who knows?” Winik added. “You might wind up winning fifty grand or a hundred grand and be able to help people in a way that you care about.”

Can Southside Market take the next step?

As encouraging as prospects are for Southside Market, substantial challenges remain.

Keeping the team together for the few years it takes to firmly establish these enterprises can be difficult. Harris graduates and those from other UChicago schools are in high demand in the job market and find it difficult to stay with a startup project when offered a position in their field. That pressure is even stronger today, in a job market where the unemployment rate hovers around four percent.

Shiu has committed to Southside Market full-time, Winik said. The company has sufficient capital to keep it rolling and is bringing onboard a second, full-time co-founder. Winik, who will complete his master’s studies in the spring of 2022, is interviewing for jobs but planning to stay in Chicago.

“We all have stayed involved since SNVC and I think that will continue,” he said. “This is something that we all care about and have devoted a lot of time to. This doesn’t feel like a project for fun anymore. This is the real thing. And I think everybody knows that.”