Joint environmental proposal could see creation of commercial kitchen, food cart storage in Little Village
For a long time, 2358 S Whipple St. was one of the only Chicago Fire Stations serving the Little Village Neighborhood, it held two fire engines and housed several firefighters that oversaw the city. In 2011 a new fire station was constructed a block away and 2358 S Whipple became vacant lot used for extra parking spaces. However, a new initiative by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and Delta Institute could see the station transformed into a commercial kitchen that would benefit both street vendors and the community.
Back in August, LVEJO and Delta Institute submitted a proposal to the Chicago Prize competition for a $10 million grant to transform an abandoned station and rehabilitate it into a commercial kitchen and storage area for food vendors.
Chicago Prize is an initiative created by the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation. According to their website, the foundation awards monetary grants to organizations with tangible plans to address “systemic poverty, economic exclusion, and inequity” in West and South Side neighborhoods. They host a yearly competition in which community groups submit proposals that explain how $10 million would improve their community and then select a winner based on the initiative, its feasibility and potential impact.
The location selected by LVEJO and Delta Institute for the potential commercial kitchen is the 8,110 square feet vacant fire station located on 2358 S Whipple St. in Little Village. According to William Schleizer, the chief executive officer of Delta Institute, an organization that works with businesses and communities to devise green initiatives, the fire station was selected from a pool of over 200 locations for its proximity to the highly trafficked streets of Kedzie and 26th.
“The city-owned firehouse could be reutilized to help catalyze and strengthen an entrepreneurial culture that’s already there and would be a center point for growing a closed-loop food entrepreneurial system for the entire neighborhood,” said Schleizer.
According to Schleizer, the construction of the commercial kitchen in the heart of Little Village would help spawn a circular food-based economy in the area. Circular economies work by adapting to the philosophy of zero - or at least minimal - waste. They seek to reuse whatever waste was created from one product and reinvest it to construct another thus significantly reducing the amount of waste created from one single product.
“We would have the preparation space, the commercial kitchen, and the food cart vendor area with the firehouse,” said Schleizer “And then that goes back out into the community with their food waste. We’d like to take that back and utilize it for other things like compost.”
Delta Institute and LVEJO would not be the first to construct a commercial food kitchen or to implement a circular economy to their business plan in Chicago. Companies like 57st. design and Bubbly Dynamics are not commercial kitchens but they operate on a circular philosophy and have thrived in recent years doing so. The firehouse would be the first to marry food with the ideas of a circular business plan. In the case of a commercial kitchen, organic waste produced from food processing would be used as compost for agriculture and capital gained from the facility would be reinvested in the community.
“We can create the whole circular economy both from growing and utilizing food but also having the dollars that are generated circulate within the community,” said Schleizer.
Through the proposal to rehabilitate the old fire station would potentially benefit the entire community, its main aim would be to assist food cart vendors. Up until 2015, selling any kind of food on the side of the street was illegal and vendors would often have their merchandise confiscated or were fined by Chicago police. In the fall of 2015, the city of Chicago signed an ordinance introduced by Alderman Roberto Maldonado that legitimized food vending businesses. With the ordinance, they also set rigid guidelines that vendors had to comply with in order to obtain a Mobile Food Vendor license. Vendors now had to pay fees ranging from $700 - $1000 depending on the type of license. They also had to submit menus and meet with the Department of Public Health Sanitarian and brace for city inspections.
The legalization of food vending in Chicago helped legitimize food vendors but it also raised the bar of entry into the field. Vendors who had been selling illegally often could not meet city standards to operate and sell. According to Schleizer, the rehabilitated firehouse will not just be a place where food vendors can store their equipment it will be a support system for vendors and people interested in the vending business.
“[Vendors] will have the ability to store carts and clean their carts to make sure it meets Chicago ordinance standards,” said Schleizer. “There will be courses. There will be a kind of education, experiential learning and other support services not only for food cart vendors, but for other food-based entrepreneurs around urban agriculture.”
Luz Martinez is a food vendor in on 26th St., From her cart, she sells everything from potato chips to Mexican-style corn. She described the onerous process of obtaining and maintaining a food vending license, including the various city inspections and the process of preparing food in a city-approved location. For Martinez, the potential commercial kitchen would be good news for business.
“Having a place to prepare food would increase clientele because of sanitary measures taken to prepare foods,” said Martinez. “It could also help renew vending licenses... I think that it would be incredible for vendors if more shared kitchen spaces like this would open not just in Little Village but also across the city”