NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Families are needing support more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in response, the community is rallying together to help sustain a grassroots concept that provides free items such as groceries and hygiene products.
Bassam Habib and Molly McCarthy started The Nashville Free Store about five weeks ago with the help of venue DRKMTTR. They set up a makeshift grocery store inside the venue on Dickerson Pike every Saturday.
The group created shelves to stock up with supplies which include fresh produce, baby products like diapers and even safe sex kits. Families can take items of their liking at no cost.
"We don't require anything at all. Anybody can come and grab anything they want," Habib told NewsChannel 5.
The Nashville Free Store has seen anywhere between 80 and 120 people on any given Saturday. The products have been provided through donations, primarily from businesses and grocery stores with a surplus of goods.
There have been similar models throughout the country over the decades, but the Nashville Free Store stresses it is not state-funded nor a nonprofit organization. Habib hopes the willingness to help will be more long-term. He approaches it with the motto "Solidarity, not charity."
"Charity is another way for people with money to feel good about themselves by helping. Solidarity is basically saying this system is not working so you need to be empowered and I need to stand with you so I can uplift you and help each other," Habib explained.
The store is planted in an area considered to be a food desert. The majority of patrons are people of all ages from the East Nashville area.
Dawn Kelly heard about The Nashville Free Store through other community members and stopped by even though it opens only on Saturdays. She is a single mother of six kids who relies on help from neighbors especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We try to cope with it but it's hard. It helps a single mom like me keep our home afloat," she said.
The Nashville Free Store is open every Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. The main donation day is on Friday from 3 pm to 6 pm. Other information can be found through its Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Pandemic affecting food security in households
COVID-19 has played a major role in families facing food insecurities. A recent study from the University of Tennessee Institute Agriculture found about 525,000 households in the state from April through May were food insufficient. The results mean one in 10 families had sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.
The data was pulled from the Household Pulse Survey from April 23 to May 26. The time periods coincides with the end of the stay-at-home order in Tennessee.
About 30% of struggling households were food sufficient prior to the pandemic.
More families needing help with meals
Nonprofit organization Martha O'Bryan Center has not only seen more families needing help, it was one of the busiest food bans in the city last year.
Chief Development Officer Peter Martino said from March through June 30, the center served 129,982 meals to 15,965 individuals. The amount of meals is four times as many meals compared to the same time last year. Some weeks were as high as ten times a typical week before COVID-19, according to Martino.
Martino said the tornado and the pandemic led to increased unemployment, deceased financial resources, decreased supply in grocery stores, and decreased public options for transportation. The center was also one of only five food banks left open in the city in the early months of the pandemic.