On any given night before the COVID-19 pandemic the Civic Media Center could be found hosting yoga, meditation, open mic nights and concerts. Now, it hosts a single event — Free Grocery Store.
The mutual aid effort began out of dumpsters. One of the CMC’s volunteers would go to dumpsters near grocery stores in hopes of finding discarded food that was still good to eat, Sacks said. Eventually, grocery stores, who ask not to be named, began to give the CMC expired goods instead of discarding them. Most of the food is still wholesome, even while labelled “expired.” Volunteers recycle the produce that is not edible into compost for the CMC’s plot in the McRorie Community Garden and to other gardens, Sacks said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Free Grocery Store donated 30 to 50 bags of food to families in a week. Now, they donate over 350 bags a week, organizer Em Arnold said.
In addition to grocery stores, Free Grocery Store obtains food from local farms like Siembra Farm and Rainbow Produce along with local bakeries.. GNV Herbal Aid also supplies herbal supplements. Volunteers purchase produce with money raised from a CMC fundraiser through the Alachua County Labor Coalition’s action network, Arnold said.
Once volunteers gather the produce from the locations, they pack it into plastic bags. The produce includes vegetables, fruit and dry food. Ready-to-eat food is distributed to families without access to kitchens.
Through a Google Forms survey or by calling the CMC, families can request specific foods or items, and record their family size and address. Some families ask for toiletries like toilet paper, shampoo, body wash and deodorant. These products are especially important because food stamps cannot pay for them and many families cannot afford them, volunteer Alfredo Morales said.
Morales recalls scraping at boxed flaky mashed potatoes from church donations over the holidays as a kid. Growing up with food stamps and donations, he can relate to those the CMC is helping.
“I'll make sure that the bag feels heavy because I know what it's like to receive the food,” he said. “I know what it's like to be thankful for the food that you're getting, but also, pre-planning on how you're going to stretch it.”
Volunteers deliver food directly to homes and the Highlands Presbyterian Community Church. The food left at the church is given to families of vulnerable immigration status or undocumented immigrants by the local grassroots immigrant-led organization, Madres Sin Fronteras.
Ally-member of MSF Liz Ibarrola said giving food to the immigrant families is not a charity, but a reciprocation of what they do to aid Gainesville.
“There are a lot of people you know who work in roles that go unrecognized, but I think undocumented folks tend to fill those roles by the nature of their legal status,” she said. “What we're doing now is a reversal of typical roles. It feels like a thank you for the work that they have done.”
For Morales, hyper-masculine spaces are restrictive, but the CMC offers radical openness and radical warmth, he said.
The CMC is built on radical books that tell real histories not displayed in public libraries, Sacks said. The book sections include Indigenous history, Black and African American history, as well as queer, gender and sexuality and women’s studies.
Eliza Goldstein, a performer at the CMC, carries a similar sentiment and burden. As a non-binary person, Goldstein can reveal their interior much easier at the CMC, they said.
“In Gainesville, you have this big football culture, and you have this big punk culture, and the common factor between those two things is that they're very like masculine dominated and binary dominated,” they said. “So I feel like when you bring in a space like the CMC that it promotes freedom of expression, and I guess not quite mainstream freedom of expression.”
Many of the Free Grocery Store’s volunteers are queer and non-binary.
“The vibe is definitely super gay, super queer and super radical. It just happened naturally that way,” they said. “We know how important it is to stick to each other and care for each other; that's the only way we can uproot these systems that try to hold us down or define us.”
Another thread that ties the volunteers together is participation in activist groups. According to another CMC organizer Manu Osorio, who runs the live music shows, the music is an extension of their activism.
Each organization intersects at the CMC. For example, many volunteers support the Alachua County Bond Fund, aimed to pay the bonds of people in jail who can’t afford to pay them. After the CMC helped release an inmate, the inmate came to the Free Grocery Store and received food, Morales said.
As queer and non-binary individuals, Arnold said that they cannot be free until everyone is free. Ultimately, food insecurity derives from the unjust system, they said.
“It comes to the question: Why doesn't everyone have access to the food that they want to have and fresh food? Why can't everyone be nourished?” they said. “And that is because of this oppressive white supremacist, patriarchal system that we're in, that favors profit over people and favors greed.”
For these members and the CMC, every day is an act of resistance, Sacks said. Even though there are only a few community and DIY spaces in Florida like the CMC and radical spaces are dying out, Sacks said, they are important, especially to Gainesville.
“Without the CMC, I think that there would be a lot of community love that would be lost,” they said.
Now as the CMC struggles financially, they have raised thousands of dollars in donations from those in Gainesville and out. With hundreds of small donations from working people, Sacks said the support from the community is emblematic of this love.
The CMC is accepting donations through PayPal and Venmo @cmc4ever.
Katie Delk is a sophomore with a journalism major and an anthropology minor. For the Avenue, she writes about music, culture and the environment. When she is not writing, she is outside with the trees, reading a fantasy book or listening to Beach House.