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MAD RVA free store secures location in Richmond food desert

Volunteers stand outside the storefront location for a planned "free store"
Volunteers stand outside the storefront location for a planned "free store" in Richmond's Northside. When the store opens this fall, it will will provide people in the area with essential supplies for free. (Photo courtesy MAD RVA)

A store where anyone can access food and other essentials for free is one step closer to opening its doors in Richmond. After months of searching, volunteers from the mutual aid organization MAD RVA have secured a storefront location in Northside. 

Several neighborhoods in that community are food deserts, meaning that there are no affordable sources of fresh, healthy groceries in walking distance within the area’s boundaries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas. The atlas also noted that a significant number of residents in Northside are at least a mile away from the nearest supermarket. 

“Because of the red lining, that area is a food desert,” said MAD RVA volunteer Trish Gibson. “And there are a lot of low-income families there.”

That’s the main reason why the location was chosen, according to Gibson, who’s also a member of the operations workgroup that’s focusing on getting the storefront up and running. 

Gibson said the free store is an extension of MAD RVA’s mission to provide direct mutual aid to Richmonders in need. The organization has been serving area residents since 2018, and in addition to devising a plan to open a store, it operates an emergency mini-grant program that provides families in need with $200. 

The store has been a goal for the organization since it was founded, and Gibson said anyone in need will be welcome there as well as being welcomed into MAD RVA’s volunteer community. 

“Mutual aid is at the forefront of all we do. So, the idea is folks in your community wanting to support you,” Gibson said. “Anyone should feel cozy and be able to come into this space, if they're needing something.” 

Gibson said in addition to fresh groceries, the store will provide people in the area with essential supplies like hygiene products, tampons, as well as supplies for young children — like baby formula. In addition, she said the organization aims to make the store a welcoming community space. 

“We hope that it's a joyful space,” Gibson said. “We want it to be a space where all kinds of folks can come. And they can feel supported. They can have conversation, they could feel like they are participating in mutual aid, whether they're coming to get groceries or whether they're coming to volunteer. Or whether they're coming to pick up groceries to give to their neighbor.” 

Mutual aid has a history as long as society itself, according to Danielle Littman, co-author of a study on mutual aid during the COVID-19 pandemic and a PhD candidate at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. She said mutual aid work has always existed as a mechanism for supporting marginalized communities. 

“Mutual aid has tended to exist at the margins, and tended to be structures where people are caring for one another when they are not supported by conventional structures in society,” Littman said. 

In her research on mutual aid at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Littman said she found that the practice has exploded in popularity and participation, especially among people who weren’t previously in need of access to community resources. 

“We have seen this kind of mushrooming, this proliferation of mutual aid more into the mainstream,” Littman said. “In the early months of the pandemic, those who held more privileged identity — so folks identified as white and straight specifically — saw mutual aid as a crisis response.” 

The storefront model that MAD RVA plans to open is a novel approach, according to Littman, who agreed with Gibson that traditional mutual aid, like food banks, don’t prioritize client’s dignity or agency in choosing the supplies they need. 

“It's grounded in agency. So, the agency of individual community members to be able to come and pick out exactly what they need and what they want,” Gibson said. 

To keep the store’s shelves stocked, MAD RVA plans to rely on recurring monthly donations. Its goal is to raise $10,000 a month for the project; a website to sign up for those donations has not yet been made public. 

They’re also hoping to partner with local businesses and farms interested in limiting their food waste through donations. They’ve already secured an arrangement with Shalom Farms, a Richmond-based organization that oversees two farms and several food distribution programs in the area.  

When it opens this fall, Gibson said the free store will be staffed by volunteers and open three days a week, including at least one weekend day. When they’re closed, people in need will still be able to access free food in front of the store: Gibson said they plan to partner with RVA Community Fridges to install a refrigerator where people can directly donate and access food items on the sidewalk.