So when a photo popped up on my Twitter feed of a sparkling, new free grocery and clothing store that opened inside a Title 1 middle school, it stopped me. I knew it had to have come from within the community, because only people who know the problems can start to address them in a way that makes a difference.
Before he became a well-known rapper, Kitchens’s four siblings also attended the school, and his mother worked in the cafeteria of a nearby elementary school. Kitchens knew the need at the school.
He went there on Sept. 16 for a ribbon cutting for the store, named Gunna’s Drip Closet and Goodr Grocery Store, a reference to his love of fashion, as well as his 2018 hit song “Drip Too Hard” with Lil Baby, which was nominated for a Grammy.
He launched the store in partnership with Goodr, a start-up focusing on eliminating food waste and hunger.
I spoke with Principal John Madden on the phone, who talked about some of the challenges at the school.
“We have to do more than just teach,” Madden said. “It’s like an onion, you’re peeling through layers. Our students see a lot. And covid impacted things they were going through anyway. Our students have to go home and be adults, and yet we expect them to be children inside of the building.”
Before the grocery store opened Monday, McNair Middle School had a small pantry with some shelf-stable food, but not enough to serve the entire school, said Jasmine Crowe, an entrepreneur who partnered with Kitchens to get the store off the ground.
“The school’s pantry only had 24 cans of food,” said Crowe. “So many kids today are hungry. Their stomachs are growling. They’re acting out. They just need food.”
Crowe, who founded Goodr, said she has for years fed people out of her apartment in downtown Atlanta. “Things like Thanksgiving turkey giveaways are great, but people are hungry throughout the year,” she said.
Goodr builds pop-up grocery stores in food deserts where people can shop free all year long.
Kitchens approached her, she said, and they came up with the grocery store plan for the school.
Crowe has connections at big-box stores, smaller local grocery stores and bakeries that donate shelf-stable groceries that are set to expire within the year. Crowe and her team also work with local farmers.
“When food is about to expire, stores will donate it to food pantries,” she said. “[But] food doesn’t always get distributed fast enough. Goodr gets it distributed quickly.”
The grocery store cost about $30,000 to get off the ground, a mix of funds from Goodr and Kitchens. All together it will cost $50,000 to maintain and restock for the remainder of the school year.
Crowe said there’s a difference between giving students access to food and access to meals.
“We try to get the foods that kids know and love but also things that kids can prepare on their own,” she said, adding that they offer foods such as boxed pasta, canned and fresh vegetables, and frozen foods. “We wanted a balance of different kinds of foods, including vegan options.”
Students, their families and teachers can shop free. Crowe’s team plans to monitor the store in the coming months and will restock products according to need.
Crowe also built the store with convenience in mind. “Teachers can make use of ready-made food and parents can shop after they drop off their kids,” she said. “Kids can bring home dinner if their parents have to work.”
But building a grocery store inside a school is about more than dealing with hunger and food insecurity, she said. It was important to foster a sense of independence and dignity.
“Middle school is a critical time,” Crowe said. “The store offers opportunities to build independence, but we also wanted kids to be able to shop with dignity. We don’t want kids embarrassed.”
Last week, Kitchens went with Crowe and their team to the school and distributed reusable shopping bags, in which students can store clothing, books, and of course, food from the in-school grocery. They are conscious of bullying and shaming.
“No one has to know what’s in their bag,” Crowe said. “It’s about creating dignity for the kids. The teachers did tell us there’s a lot of teasing, bullying, shame. It’s tough.”
Madden, the principal, embraced the idea from the start. He said his school was among the lowest-performing schools in Fulton County five years ago, but it has since made some strides.
“We were on an upward trajectory and then covid hit. Now it’s like we’re starting over,” he said. “There are a lot of deficits that we are trying to regain.”
He said he hopes that having an on-site grocery will function as a buffer as he and his faculty continue to steer the school and community through the pandemic.
The day of Kitchens’s visit, every student received a bag full of various pieces of clothing.
One entire classroom selected by Madden received new pairs of sneakers.
“Gunna wanted to do this for us,” Madden said. “He wanted the students to have name-brand clothes and shoes — not just hand-me-downs.”
The store is open five days a week, and students and their families register online for a specific day to shop. Students are escorted in by a guidance counselor who helps them collect what they need.
Crowe said she hopes to build more in-school grocery stores for other communities. In the meantime, she hopes her forthcoming children’s book, “Everybody Eats,” will inspire others to fight against hunger.
This former middle school teacher is inspired.
While pantries, food and clothing giveaways are not new in schools, perhaps spotlighting this in-school grocery store will show more people the extent to which hunger can impede learning — and how making food easily accessible for students can also feed academic achievement.
But as anyone who has worked at a Title 1 school will tell you, the schools’ communities take care of their students in ways far beyond academics. If anyone needs proof of that, just look to this free grocery store in Georgia.
Christina Wyman is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel “Jawbreaker.” She is a writer and teacher, and lives in Lansing, Mich., with her husband and their border collie, Frankie. She’s on Twitter @CBWymanWriter
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