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At this Atlanta Corner Store, Everything is Free

A CARE contractor walks with a man who has received groceries.

All photos: Laura Noel/CARE

All photos: Laura Noel/CARE

As families face food insecurity during the pandemic, an Atlanta corner store is providing free groceries.

On a weekday morning, vehicles fill the parking lot at Atlanta’s Carver High School, but they’re not carrying students on their way to class. Since the school closed last spring due to coronavirus, a free pop-up grocery named COR started operating in its parking lot. COR opens its drive-thru service daily at 11 a.m. to Atlantans in need of groceries and essentials.

Shoppers drive up, fill out a form, and indicate how many people they’re shopping for and what items they need. Masked COR team members prepare orders containing everything from fresh vegetables, meat, or milk to clothes and hygiene products and load the items in shoppers’ trunks and back seats for a contactless weekly grocery run.

Carver High School students receive free or subsidized lunch

Carver High School students receive free or subsidized lunch

“We started this in March and it just keeps getting hotter and hotter. So, we are so grateful for folks that show up with tents, that show up with bottled water,” says Jennifer Bartl, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of COR, a nonprofit dedicated to overcoming inequalities in the education system. “Every week, we run out of hand sanitizer because that’s a hot [commodity] right now.”

Prior to the pandemic, COR was located inside Carver High School as part of a drop-in center where students could access a range of support from snacks to mental health services. COR’s goal is to remove non-academic barriers so that students can “come to school, stay at school, and graduate,” Jennifer says. When the school shut down due to the coronavirus, COR moved its operations outside.

“Folks are losing their jobs. The bit of money that they might have had coming in is now gone.”

“We’re working with some of the most vulnerable students in Atlanta. They’re already dealing with poverty and food insecurity coupled with pretty blatant racism,” Jennifer says. At Carver High School, 100% of students receive free or subsidized lunch.

In Atlanta, one in every five people live in poverty, which directly affects an individual’s ability to access healthy, nutritious food. In Georgia, 84% of people purchase inexpensive, unhealthy food to stay within their budget and 40% of people water down their food or drinks.

Three women in face masks stand behind a tent set up at a food distribution site.
COR co-founders (left to right) Jenifer Henn, Jennifer Bartl, and Jennifer Greenlee.

“Some of the families that we’re working with are really struggling. Prior to COVID, things were rough and now, families who were working are not working… so this really fills a gap for people.”

In partnership with CARE, Atlanta Public Schools and Chris 180, COR currently provides food and other supplies for up to 800 families per week. Those who frequent the store often select groceries for neighbors and friends. After one year in operation, COR has served 100,000 meals.

Many of the families that shop at COR work in the restaurant and entertainment industries, which have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. During the pandemic, some families have relied entirely on COR for food.

“The bit of money that they might have had coming in is now gone,” Jennifer explains. “The joblessness is really terrifying for families and to be able to get consistent quality food for their families each week is really important.”

Cars line up in the driveway of a high school.
Cars line up outside of Carver High School to pick up groceries at COR.

While waiting in the drive-thru for groceries, community members open up to the COR team about their experiences and struggles. One woman lost her son due to the coronavirus and was shopping for food to serve at his funeral.

Others, like Mattie, notice how busy the operation is, and ask if they can help. “Now she’s here every week in the hot sun. She’s got her mask; she’s got bottles of water for everybody and she is here to serve.”

In addition to volunteers like Mattie, COR has hired additional staff, funded through CARE, which is helping respond to an increased demand in the community.

Volunteer Mattie Graham packages food during one of the weekly distributions at Carver High School.
A volunteer helps a customer get his groceries to his car.

In April, CARE, which operates in 100 countries, launched a United States response for the first time in the organization’s history due to the pandemic. The U.S. program provides monetary assistance, food, and essential supplies to individuals in need and at risk, through partnerships with grassroots organizations such as COR.

During the pandemic, COR has expanded to serve anyone who needs it in the immediate community, or beyond.

“Whether you are a resident of South Atlanta or you have the ability to drive and get here from another part of the city… come on through. We’re here to serve.”

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