Skip to main content

Rise Community Market Brings Hope to Residents in Cairo, Illinois

A grassroots effort is working to rejuvenate a rural town in southern Illinois by closing the food access gap.

This June, residents of Cairo, Illinois had a reason to celebrate.

After years of broken promises and being left out of conversations altogether, members of the community took matters into their own hands. Together they created and launched Rise Community Market, Cairo’s first grocery store in more than seven years.

Cairo is a predominantly Black community located in southern Illinois that has been negatively impacted by generations of disinvestment and systemic racism. The town has seen a 36% drop in population over the last decade and lost 89% of its population in the last century – largely due to the relocation of industry jobs and decades of racial tension, corruption and neglect. The last grocery store in Cairo closed in December 2015, creating significant food access challenges for residents. For the last seven years, many have had to drive 20-30 miles, often out-of-state, to buy items like fresh produce, meat, and pantry staples.

All that changed a few weeks ago following a truly community-led, collaborative effort. In October 2021, Cairo residents had the idea for a co-op grocery store that would be owned and operated by members of the community, and they decided to put it into action. The HEAT (Health Equity Achieved Together) team at the University of Illinois Extension and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University both provided consultation and administrative support. Collectively, they developed a business plan, secured funding, found a space, named the market and designed the logo. The construction of the space was done through an apprenticeship program at Shawnee Community College, a local community college.

Their hard work came to life at the official ribbon cutting event on June 16, 2023. Cairo residents were joined by Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, a passionate champion of food access and equity, as well as Cairo’s mayor, Thomas Simpson, and several of the partners who were part of the journey, including Builders Initiative’s Haven Leeming. They celebrated the opening of the store, an end to being a food desert and a renewed sense of hope for the community.

“Access to healthy food and fresh pro­duce is not just about gro­ceries. It’s about jus­tice. It’s about adding nutri­ent foods in our diets. It’s about ensur­ing that our chil­dren’s stom­achs aren’t grum­bling as they sit in their class­rooms, so they can focus.”

— Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton

In her remarks at the event, Lt. Gov. Stratton said, "Access to healthy food and fresh produce is not just about groceries. It's about justice. It’s about adding nutrient foods in our diets. It's about ensuring that our children's stomachs aren't grumbling as they sit in their classrooms, so they can focus."

Builders Initiative was brought on in early 2022 and provided a two-year grant to support the healthy food vision of Cairo, including the launch and operation of the market. This grant not only aligns with Builders Initiative's goal of ensuring that good food is accessible and affordable for all, but it’s directly supporting the important work of a local community.

Rise Community Market is a critical step towards building a better future for the entire town. It will increase access and consumption of healthy food in the region and be an anchor for economic development.