Atlanta teachers shop for free at this grocery store, then give back

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A line already had formed outside the Grocery Spot a half-hour before it opened.

The school day had just ended, Thanksgiving break beckoned and the nonprofit store in Atlanta’s Grove Park neighborhood was once again gearing up to give away food for free. Or, in exchange for whatever dollar amount patrons wanted to donate.

In that line stood teachers and school staffers, pulling wagons and carrying tote bags to fill with food for their families and to share with their students. A couple of times a week, the Grocery Spot opens just for educators.

“We are here for everybody who is working 40 hours a week and still can’t make it,” said Matthew Jones, the store’s founder, who aims to serve those who need a little help but may earn too much to receive government assistance. “We are trying to find the working class.”

Find it he has. Up to 150 people stop by the mural-painted store during a typical shopping day for educators. On a recent afternoon, many stopped by after school, many still wearing their work badges.

”I’ve never seen anything like this, and as a young person, it helps a lot to know I can come get good, quality groceries and not have to spend that money ...,” said Anthony Anderson, a teacher at Scott Elementary School.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Anderson is in his first year at Atlanta Public Schools; he previously taught for two years in Washington, D.C. In the years before he moved here, he watched appreciatively as APS gave raises and stipends intended to attract and retain instructors. Still, with inflation driving up costs, he’s grateful for help with groceries.

“Somebody’s looking out for us,” said Anderson, who scooped up some chicken, mushrooms and onions to cook at home.

While other nonprofits focus on the very poor or homeless, the Grocery Spot seeks to fill the gap for those living near the edge — no application or income criteria required. The store initially launched as a retailer last year, but after struggling, it pivoted to the free or donation-only model.

Two months ago, the store started reserving time for educators as part of its community outreach and effort to support working families. The store also devotes certain days to the general public and to senior citizens.

“If you are willing to stand in that line, I imagine you need food,” Jones said.

The store raises money from its more than 20,000 social media followers and fills its shelves largely with goods from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

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Teachers across the state report feeling burned out by the job’s many challenges, and surveys indicate salary is another reason why some consider leaving the profession.

APS offers one of the highest teacher pay scales among metro Atlanta school systems. First-year teachers earn slightly over $51,000 a year, while paraprofessionals just starting out make roughly half that. Bus drivers begin at $21 an hour. The district, which pointed to its efforts to alleviate workers’ financial pressures, intends to hire a firm to study employee compensation as it prepares for next year’s budget.

The area surrounding the Grocery Spot has few food options and several high-poverty schools run by APS and charter groups.

Clipping coupons used to help Luvilla Armstrong afford snacks and supplies for her students. But the John Lewis Invictus Academy teacher, known at the middle school as “the Snack Lady,” said she can no longer count on that to find enough good deals.

The academy provides school meals to all students at no cost through a federal program. Still, Armstrong said, many children are hungry. Lately she’s stocked up on ingredients at the Grocery Spot that she’s used to whip up breakfast quiches and flatbread pizzas to share with coworkers and students.

On her recent visit, she had plenty of foods to choose from. The refrigerators were stocked with creamy chicken soup, jalapeño hummus and milk. Frozen turkeys awaited holiday feasts. Big bins held apples, onions, squash, watermelon and other fresh produce.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Mikole Harden, a teacher at Scott, said he used to spend a couple of hundred dollars a month to stock his classroom. The snacks and cleaning supplies he gets from the Grocery Spot help defray that cost. He said he’s also cut his own family’s grocery bill roughly in half.

Derek O’Neal picks up small bags of chips to give to his middle schoolers at John Lewis Invictus when they do well on video quizzes or just when he spots a student headed to class. With the cost of everyday essentials going up, he said the store is a blessing.

“Not only does it help at the school, it helps our homes as well,” he said. “It takes a big burden off us.”