Bankhead resident Jeff Jackson says accessing fresh groceries in his neighborhood has become more difficult over the years. Jackson recalls multiple grocery stores closing in the past decade. It’s why the Grocery Spot, the free grocery store where he volunteers and gets fresh produce, is needed in his community.
“It’s kind of hard since grocery stores that we used to access used to be down the street,” he said, recalling a Super Giant Food on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway that closed in 2014.
Jackson, who currently manages a Checkers restaurant, started volunteering at the Grocery Spot in Grove Park four months ago, and now works as an employee.
“We’re fighting hunger,” said Jackson of the Grocery Spot. “[People] can walk, come up and get their groceries or something to hold them until they get their food stamps.”
In Fulton and DeKalb Counties, 20% and 18% of Black people, respectively, are “food insecure” or unable to consistently access adequate nutrition due to cost, location, or other barriers, resulting in hunger or malnutrition. By comparison, just 5% of white people are food insecure in those counties.
With food costs at record highs and COVID-era government benefits coming to an end, mutual aid markets like the Grocery Spot are trying to fill in the gaps in families’ grocery budgets. Mutual-aid services focus on supplying food and other needs to local residents via donations from the community and others. The idea is that those who use the service are also supplying it.
The need for low- and no-cost food sources extends beyond the challenges of this moment. “In both good economic times and bad, Black and Hispanic families consistently experience crisis-level rates of poverty and food insecurity,” according to the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute.
Food insecurity in Atlanta’s predominantly Black neighborhoods is a microcosm of a bigger issue in the United States.
‘You don’t see no Publix around here’
Matthew Jones, the co-founder of the Grocery Spot, moved to Bankhead from Nashville, Tennessee, in 2020. The disabled veteran and musician took out loans to open the Grocery Spot as a for-profit business in 2021.
But the model didn’t last long, since many residents couldn’t afford the prices of the products. He was intentional about locating it in Grove Park, where access to fresh food is scarce.
“I was giving all the food away before it would go bad,” Jones said. He decided to switch up the model, and “I started feeding people for free.”
Jones took the nonprofit approach, offering groceries at no cost and accepting monetary donations from customers. When local pantries and for-profit grocers have more food than they can sell, the Grocery Spot takes the excess — sometimes referred to as “food waste” — and redistributes the products through their store.
“It’s all food waste, but the food is all brand new!” Jones said.
Cecil Davis, a forklift operator who lives in northwest Atlanta near Howell Mill Road, was at the Grocery Spot at the end of January looking for healthy fruits and vegetables. This was only Davis’ second trip to the store, but he appreciates the void it’s currently filling for nearby residents.
“You don’t see no healthy spots around here. You don’t see no Whole Foods. You don’t see no Publix around here,” he said. “Obviously, times are hard, the economy is taking a hit. And they always got healthy stuff. They don’t just give you the junk that nobody else wants.”
Davis makes about $17 an hour and he has kids, so he said the Grocery Spot helps him offset grocery costs. He likes the quality of the food. When Davis spoke with Capital B Atlanta, he was with his uncle, Leonard Askew.
This wasn’t Askew’s first trip to the Grocery Spot, and he agreed with his nephew’s sentiment. “We’re treated like there’s not a need, or like we choose not to have access for healthier food,” he said.
Some customers say they also come to the Grocery Spot to offset the impact that record high inflation has had on their wallets. Others say they need it because it’s one of a few places that provides good, quality food in Atlanta’s Westside.
Jones says the Grocery Spot, which provides more than 140,000 pounds of free food a week, has seen an uptick in the number of people needing its services. Volunteers at the Grocery Spot estimate they serve more than 600 families a week during their hours of operation; between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Grocery Spot’s mutual-aid model has its limitations, because it’s reliant on community donations for food and funding. Already serving a low-income customer base, the organization has financial challenges and the food supply is limited, sometimes forcing it to close early when food runs out.
Transportation can also be a challenge. Many customers rely on public transportation, but the Grocery Spot is a nearly 30-minute walk from the closest MARTA station.
Outside the store is a sign that reads, “the mutual aid grocery store,” meaning that its donations are meant to be from the community it serves, and the store’s large Instagram following. To fundraise, the store also sells shirts and grocery bags.
To Jones, it’s important to refuse help from the government to avoid red tape over eligibility and to provide more customer choice. It’s also important that anyone can come to the Grocery Spot, regardless of income level.
That reality is something felt by Black residents outside of Grove Park, including Pat Ward. Ward is a longtime resident of West End who volunteers at the Grocery Spot. “Even if you don’t know what it’s like to be hungry. In this economy, you gon’ find out,” she said.
Food scarcity in Westside
The Walmart on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Vine City was crucial for residents in the neighborhood and surrounding areas. So when Bria Hickman, a senior at nearby Clark Atlanta University, heard that it was closed after alleged arson, she was furious, and panicked.
The Vine City Walmart is one of the few full service grocery stores in the area. It’s also the only one that’s accessible by MARTA, including a bus stop right in front of the store for convenience.
“I’m not used to stocking up on everything,” Hickman said, adding that without a car she will have to change her approach to grocery shopping. “It was kind of frustrating because it’s like now I got to think in advance what I may need, and then when I do, I have to figure out how to get to the store.”
Toward the end of last year, various Walmarts across Atlanta have been shuttered due to alleged arson. In January, Walmart announced that it would transition its Vine City location to a neighborhood market, focused on selling groceries.
Lack of reliable transportation can be a barrier. Outside of Walmart, the nearest grocery store to the Atlanta University Center is a Kroger on Cascade Road, a 20-minute ride on a MARTA bus or a six-minute drive.
The college’s dining halls can be an option, but Ah’nyah Samuel, a Clark Atlanta University student, said they are not open 24 hours.
“That’s an inconvenience because as college students, we’re going to be up late,” Samuel said. “We need things to make and to eat. [We need] to buy snacks and stuff just to have in our room, just in case we don’t have the money to go out.”
Christy Betz, the Grocery Spot’s executive director, said she’s received calls from people outside asking if they deliver. Jones has said that they’ve sent food in Uber before, but his insurance doesn’t allow for a grocery delivery service.
Phil Veasley, a local transportation expert, said that food access and transportation access are often directly linked, from the placement of grocery stores to the ability to obtain food.
“When you look at a map of Atlanta, overlay it with MARTA, and then overlay it with [areas] where people don’t have cars, it’s not necessarily among the MARTA lines,” he said. “It’s based on income, more so than walkability.”
He pointed out that Walmart was the only grocery store with direct access to MARTA. Other grocery stores might take a much longer, inaccessible trip if a resident is just relying on MARTA.
“For people without a car, you’re looking at an hour’s walk,” he said. “Without direct MARTA rail access, you’re looking at probably two or three buses, having to do a transfer and everything.”
Many of the grocery stores aren’t within feasible walking distance, which puts many residents, including students at the local colleges, in a bind, leaving them food insecure. Some students have said that since Walmart’s sudden closure, they’ve been trying their best to share the costs of Ubers and Lyft, but even that can still be expensive, he says.
Food for free
The Grocery Spot isn’t the only initiative in Atlanta addressing food waste and insecurity. Goodr Co., a Black-woman-led organization founded in 2017, works with businesses to take edible food waste and redistribute it to nonprofit organizations, offering food to communities in need. Goodr also delivers fresh food, provides pop-up food markets in food deserts, and puts accessible food pantries inside of schools.
CEO Jasmine Crowe told the audience of the TEDWomen 2019 conference about her motivation for creating Goodr, saying, “We are doing hunger wrong.”
“We’ve created a cycle that keeps people dependent on food banks and pantries on a monthly basis for food that is often not well-balanced, and certainly doesn’t provide them with a healthy meal,” she said
In addition to Goodr, organizations such as Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, an urban farm in Collegetown in Atlanta’s Westside, offers training and programs to educate residents on growing and harvesting their own food. Truly Living Well launched in 2006 and has locations throughout metro Atlanta. The Collegetown location has a weekly market on Friday and Saturday that offers fresh produce, chef demos, and farm tours.
Grassroots organizations like Free99Fridge place community pantries and refrigerators outside local businesses around Atlanta. The organization was launched by Latisha Springer in 2020. Like the Grocery Spot, Free99Fridge uses the mutual-aid model. The food inside is stocked and maintained by community residents.
For Jones, the founder of the Grocery Spot, the service is filling a role that he believes the government should implement on a larger scale, using food that restaurants and markets would otherwise throw away to feed people for free.
While gathering leftover food and distributing it to residents for free is challenging as a small nonprofit, he theorized that “what I’m doing is sustainable and cheap” for a government entity.
“On my level, it’s killing us. It’s so hard to do but really in the long scheme of things, when you’re talking about money, it’s nothing [for us] to give away this food.”
While Jones ponders the store’s possibilities and government red tape, volunteers like Ward stay committed to the mission to bring food to residents in need.
“Here, there’s no ID to show, no paperwork,” she said. “Everybody don’t have money. That’s why this exists.”
This story was published with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network through the Health Equity Initiative.