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StreetWise starts EatWise produce-vendor program

Fruit and vegetable carts will be on Chicago streets in spring.

 (Photograph: Emily Mohney)
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Photograph: Emily Mohney

 (Photograph: Emily Mohney)
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Photograph: Emily Mohney

 (Photograph: Emily Mohney)
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Photograph: Emily Mohney

 (Photograph: Emily Mohney)
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Photograph: Emily Mohney

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For 20 years, StreetWise has put individuals facing homelessness on more sound financial footing by employing them as magazine salespeople. Now, in a new social venture it’s calling EatWise, the nonprofit is looking to put vendors behind sidewalk produce stands.

In a partnership with the socially oriented for-profit company Neighbor Capital, StreetWise will be screening employees for the fruit and vegetable carts, training the vendors in food handling, educating them about produce and helping them get licensed by the city. The first ten stands, dubbed Neighbor Carts, will hit the sidewalks in high-traffic intersections as well as food deserts by early spring, with ten more planned to roll out soon after.

The program happens to dovetail nicely with one of Mayor Emanuel’s key campaign issues: eradicating food deserts. In September, the city awarded StreetWise a workforce-development grant to fully fund the launch of EatWise. StreetWise executive director Jim LoBianco expects to officially announce the program’s launch during an event at the end of the month, which the mayor is likely to attend.

“The magazine has been a phenomenal resource, but the truth is it has a limited capacity for upward mobility,” says LoBianco, who promises the publication will continue to be the organization’s core. “The magazine is absolutely a resource when you’re in crisis and need access to an earned income, but it’s not preparing you for significant job potential in other areas.” Successful vendors, LoBianco says, could eventually be offered the opportunity to buy the cart outright and become a franchisee.

A StreetWise vendor at State and Adams Streets, Van Sanders, says he’s into the idea of trading magazines for produce. “Lots of people are going vegetarian and stuff like that, so I would sell them. In this economy, just spitting and saying, ‘Heck, no!’—that’s not a good attitude. I’d try it out and see how it progresses.”

Six feet long, 46 inches deep and eight feet high with the attached canopy, the carts also feature spaces for paid advertising. The seasonally rotating produce will come from Peapod. Neighbor Capital already had a partnership with the Skokie-based online grocer for two other projects: FruitRaising, which allows companies and individuals to sponsor delivery of fresh fruit bundles to food desert drop-off locations, and FreshToday, an enterprise to induce bodegas in food deserts to carry produce.

John Piercy, who founded Neighbor Capital in 2009, said he was looking to develop a model for vending fresh fruits and vegetables in grocery-poor neighborhoods when he was introduced to LoBianco. StreetWise had a tested framework, he says, and the partnership was a no-brainer. “The great thing about StreetWise is they already have such a great knowledge of street vending in Chicago, a terrific pool of candidates and a great process for screening,” Piercy says.

The EatWise project is as much about keeping StreetWise vendors afloat as it is about ensuring the stability of the organization, LoBianco says. Three years ago, StreetWise was nearly bankrupt when a new board of directors, mostly local entrepreneurs, swooped in and raised enough money to stave off collapse.

“The produce vending program is part of the vision of this new board, part of realizing that the magazine is a great and valuable tool—but we need to be looking at other ways of staying relevant,” says LoBianco, who’s been executive director for just over a year. “We can reach a much broader market with a different product which is an essential product—food—than we can with a socially conscious news journal.”

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