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Partnership and perseverance end food desert in Illinois’ southernmost city

Rise Community Market Grand Opening

CAIRO, Ill. — Illinois’ southernmost city, Cairo, is home to just over 1,700 people, and for the past seven years, those residents have been without a local grocery store, greatly limiting access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food. On Friday, June 16, that all changed.

The new Rise Community Market is an inviting, accessible, and co-operatively owned grocery store in Cairo, which celebrated its grand opening with a special event that honored this uncommon partnership of local leaders, shareholders, volunteers, granting organizations (including the University of Illinois Foundation; Illinois Restore, Reinvest, and Renew [R3]; and Builder’s Initiative), Western Illinois University’s Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, the University of Illinois System’s Illinois Innovation Network, and University of Illinois Extension’s SNAP-Ed program.

Gathering Expertise and Creating a Common Vision
Cairo and other communities that face food scarcity represent a national trend where decreasing population densities, income inequality, and transportation challenges lead to low access to quality nutrition. John Shadowens works for Illinois Extension in Alexander (Cairo), Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union counties as a community economic development educator and member of the multi-disciplinary SNAP-Ed Health Equity Achieved Together (HEAT) project, which aims to increase healthy food access, remove barriers to a healthier lifestyle, and improve child and community nutrition.

Shadowens has been a collaborator throughout the evolution of the Rise project alongside his counterpart, Sean Park, from Western Illinois University. Shadowens frames the importance of the Rise Community Market opening, explaining that, “So many in the community of Cairo have come to realize through this project that their strength and resolve are the keys to rebuilding their community. Rise Community Market demonstrates that when, as engaged citizens, they decide to come together to meet a need, there is plenty of outside help and resources available to them.”

Celebrating Partnership and Looking Forward
A hearty crowd of supporters, staff, and special guests gathered for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday morning to share thoughts on the legacy of this project, which began in earnest with the formation of the steering committee in May 2022. Store Manager Robert Edwards, Assistant Manager Paul Kaina, and their newly hired staff were ready to serve Cairo residents in this brightly refurbished space, which will also be the home of the Rise and Shine Café, the second full-time restaurant in Cairo currently.

Gabrielle Harris, president of the Rise Community Market’s board, expressed his gratitude, saying, “We would like to thank the community, volunteers, and funders that helped make this grand opening a reality.” Rise represents a collaborative funding model, where “co-owners” can contribute $100 for a lifetime membership to the market to provide fiscal stability and receive benefits. Ownership is not needed to shop, but owners do receive additional discounts on some specials and have a voice in determining the direction of the store over time.

Rise Community Market was remodeled, outfitted, and stocked by a robust partnership with Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ), Kroger, Cairo Public Utilities, Clearwave Fiber, Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP), Winkler Foods and Tri-State Food Bank, along with dozens of local contractors and volunteers using over $700,000 in grants from University of Illinois Foundation, R3, US Rural Development, Builder’s Initiative, and other donations.

Special guest, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, praised the Rise opening as a shining example for all communities in Illinois saying, “Cairo is a model for entrepreneurship and collaboration that can be replicated elsewhere in the state, emphasizing that “access to healthy food is not just about groceries, it’s about justice,” and that projects like Rise “are setting off a chain reaction for good.”   

Special Guests and Partners

Recognition Plaque Recipients
Asher Roper, Jake Woodson, and Carol Childress

Board Members: Gabrielle Harris, Steven Tarver, DeAngela Burris, Constance Williams, Bobby Mayberry, Maria Watkins, Marcella Woodson

Steering Committee Members: Mayor Thomas Simpson, Sheila Nelson, Tjay Purchase, Dale “Jake” Woodson, James Dumas, Gabrielle Harris, Steven Tarver, Judy Watkins, Ke’Ron Jackson, Marcella Woodson, Brittany Matthews, and the late Rodney Moore

Civic and University Leaders: Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton, Director of Illinois Department of Agriculture Jerry Costello, USDA Rural Development State Director for Illinois Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, Senator Dale Fowler, Senator Terri Bryant, Representative Paul Jacobs, Representative Patrick Windhorst, U of I System Associate Vice President for Economic Development and Innovation Kyle Harfst, and Associate Dean and Director of Illinois Extension Shelly Nickols-Richardson

Major Donors, Funders, and Partners: Builder’s Initiative, University of Illinois Foundation, Illinois Restore, Reinvest, and Renew (R3), USDA and Rural Development, Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ), Kroger Stores, Winkler Foods, Performance Foods, Cairo Public Utilities, Tri-State Food Bank and Darrell Bell, Clearwave Fiber, Bases Loaded Pizza, Taylor Auctions and Real Estate, Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP), Western Illinois University’s Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, the U of I System’s Illinois Innovation Network, and University of Illinois Extension’s SNAP-Ed program.

INTERVIEWS: Contact Dolan, 217-333-7958 to request specialist interviews on this topic.

PHOTO ACCESS: Images for this article are available to download. Photo credits: Bridget Lee-Calfas and Destenie Sullivan

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.