ATLANTA (AFP) – There is no such thing as a free lunch, economists chide, but one alternative store in the southern United States (US) city of Atlanta is offering the next best thing to those struggling with spiralling prices.
Locals load up on plantains, frozen meat and other ingredients free of charge at The Grocery Spot, a small, neon-lit outlet in the Georgia state capital.
In three weeks, Americans get to deliver their verdict on Joe Biden’s presidency in the crucial midterm elections that decide whether his Democrats get to keep pushing through his agenda – or cede control of Congress to the Republicans.
The economy, and inflation, in particular, are topping every nationwide poll of voters’ priorities, but householders have been struggling more than most in Atlanta – where a generation of the “newly poor” has been crushed by soaring costs.
The Grocery Spot – which launched almost two years ago, around the time that President Joe Biden assumed office and the consumer price index began its vertiginous ascent – said it has seen an explosion in patrons.
“Have you been to the supermarket recently?” asked entrepreneur in the medical industry, Theresa McGhee as she negotiates the cramped shelves at the charitable association’s premises in the northwestern Grove Park neighbourhood.
“You pick up a few things, it’s USD100,” the mother, in her 50s, complains as she fills up on potatoes, granola bars and tubs of ice-cream.
With its 12 per cent inflation rate, Atlanta is one of the US cities where prices have increased the most this year.
McGhee is clear that “greed, greed, greed” is at the root of the crisis – from the avarice of elected politicians to the excesses of big business.
One manager of the store, who goes by the name Slugga, has already made up his mind that he won’t be voting in three weeks, however.
“I don’t see the point,” the 39-year-old African-American man told AFP.
Slugga, who was raised nearby, sees politics as little more than a never-ending drama of partisan squabbles. “Who’s going to help our future?” he asked.
“You’d be surprised how many people have worked all their lives and can’t make ends meet,” a woman in a long black coat, preferring not to give her name chimed in.
“They give you just enough money to remind you how screwed you are,” agreed a volunteer, putting away boxes.
The Grocery Spot spends more than USD400 a week on diesel to drive around Georgia looking for unsold goods, which it redistributes in its store.
Every day that it is open for business, almost 500 people walk through its doors before it runs out of stock.
“There is this newly poor demographic that no one is taking care of,” the association’s founder, Matt Jones told AFP.
“I’m here for the teachers, the Uber and Lyft drivers, the Walmart employees,” said the Marine Corps veteran, who describes himself as “anti-government”.
“I think it’s not right for the government to come in and say we want to give you a grant and support you when this is what they should be doing,” he added.
At The Grocery Spot, shopping operates in a “pay-what-you-can” honesty system, with customers invited – but not obliged – to offer a small sum as they checkout. A saleswoman noisily shakes a bell that resonates throughout the store with each donation. The association is also active on social media, using its accounts to raise cash.
“We always wanted to be our superheroes,” said Slugga, leaning against the graffiti-covered truck the store uses to collect its fresh produce.
“I feel like Robin Hood,” he said as he watches the shoppers filling their baskets.