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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What is mutual aid? Here’s how one Gainesville group takes part

One mutual aid project, The Free Grocery Store, is making a difference for families in need

Miranda Carver Martin packs a bag with groceries for the Free Grocery Store at the Civic Media Center on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. "I want to live in a world where people take care of each other," Martin said.
Miranda Carver Martin packs a bag with groceries for the Free Grocery Store at the Civic Media Center on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. "I want to live in a world where people take care of each other," Martin said.

Mutual aid is a hallmark of organizers’ values within Gainesville’s activism.

As defined by The Cut, a website focused on cultural issues and owned by New York Media, mutual aid is a means for communities to come together against a common struggle and offer relief to families or individuals in need. 

The Civic Media Center (CMC), a nonprofit library located on 433 S Main Street, hosts several initiatives that organizers qualify as mutual aid programs aimed to offer counsel, educate through book donations and provide groceries and home-cooked meals. Organizers describe these services as a way to listen to the community, offer support and act as their friend. 

After closing in 2020, much of the CMC has been upkept by organizers who let volunteers run the mutual aid programs. Some of the CMC’s programs include the Free Grocery Store, Food Not Bombs and Gainesville Books to Prisoners, who use the courtyard for meetings and outdoor events. 

Fi Stewart-Taylor, a 29-year-old board member at the CMC, believes mutual aid is about pooling resources to benefit those in need.

“We have a lot to offer folks,” Stewart-Taylor said. “It’s not just materials being redistributed, although that is very important, but how to lift each other up, how can we educate each other and how can we support access to this rich history of progressive organizing here.”

Aside from mutual aid, the CMC is home to an alternative library, music and cultural events. Stewart-Taylor said the community center closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 but still allowed organizers and volunteers to use the building for storage. The CMC has not reopened since, but plans are underway for a soft opening in September that promotes social distancing and masks. 

Robert Clark, a 65-year-old Gainesville resident, has had groceries delivered to him from the Free Grocery Store for over a year. He said once the CMC closed and allowed the Free Grocery Store volunteers to use the building, the program took off.

“It’s been a great service,” Clark said. “I go to other distribution centers but what’s great about the Free Grocery Store is that you can request food that is of interest to you.” 

Clark said he feels blessed to receive help from the Free Grocery Store. He wants more people to know there are many mutual aid opportunities in Gainesville to receive help or offer help.

The Free Grocery Store began operating before the pandemic but took off around the time local businesses started closing in 2020. As restaurants and stores had to decrease their staff and people started losing their jobs, Michael Ruiz, a 23-year-old organizer, said the Free Grocery Store stepped in to provide relief in the form of groceries. 

The food offered is often difficult or expensive to buy for families reliant on mutual aid programs.  Ruiz said the Free Grocery Store offers a wide variety for families, such as produce from local farmers, various meats, rice, pasta and any canned foods with a long shelf life.  For families with young children, they offer candy and sweets. 

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Most of the food used in the Free Grocery Store comes from Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, which receives the food from local farmers. Ruiz said they often receive food with damaged packaging from grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s. Panera Bread also donates unused bakery items.

There are no requirements to be a recipient of the Free Grocery Store, Ruiz said, and they will accommodate anyone needing assistance. 

Eugene Gibson, a 59-year-old Gainesville resident, is another recipient of the free groceries. For close to a year, volunteers have delivered to Gibson on Tuesday at 2 p.m., sometimes even twice a week on a Sunday. 

“It comes on time and when I need it,” Gibson said. “When I run out of food they come back every time and help me out.”

The Free Grocery Store serves an average of a dozen walk-ups when they operate on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the volunteers have found other ways to reach the Gainesville community.

Ruiz said most of the groceries are delivered to families’ homes, elderly recipients and people who lack a means of transportation. Volunteers can sign up to be a driver and deliver to clusters of families geographically close, or they can be packers that customize grocery bags based on each family’s specific needs. 

Volunteers for the Free Grocery Store are mostly UF students. While their presence in the community is still expanding, Ruiz and the other volunteers believe establishing a club at UF could help grow their mission of providing mutual aid. 

“We’re trying to strengthen our ties with the community and get more community members involved and more people aware of what we’re doing,” Ruiz said. 

Moving forward, Ruiz and other volunteers want to begin offering the Free Grocery Store only one day a week. Today, their focus and sphere of influence is small but growing.

“A lot of our focus is on the east side,” Ruiz said. “Food access is fairly limited on the east side of Gainesville, and that’s something we want to help with and address.” 

The Free Grocery Store and other mutual aid programs are providing home cooked meals, books or free groceries delivered to families in need. There are ways to offer services and receive help in Gainesville. The CMC and the knowledge inside remains a humble and important aspect to delivering mutual aid to Gainesville families.

Contact Troy Myers at @tmyers@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter @Troy_Myers1.

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Troy Myers

Troy is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in business administration. He previously studied accounting for two years at Santa Fe College but has since transferred to UFCJC. When Troy isn’t writing, he enjoys watching the UF athletic teams, going to the beach and spending time with his identical twin brother and family.


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