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  • Writer's pictureSam Worley

On Buford Highway, a little grocery store with a big mission

The Little Bodega is a free grocery pop-up that models a new way of feeding families in need

 
With the Little Bodega, the idea is to explore a different model for helping constituents from a diverse array of backgrounds and traditions. | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

In spring 2020, when the nonprofit We Love Buford Highway launched a program to give free groceries to families along the BuHi corridor, the source of the need was clear: the Covid-19 pandemic. Just as unemployment was spiking and supply chains were going haywire, families found themselves disconnected from usual sources of sustenance—kids who qualified for free or reduced lunches at school, for instance, couldn’t easily get them when schools were closed.


Lily Pabian, We Love BuHi’s executive director | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

We Love BuHi partnered with other nonprofit organizations to deliver meals to some 17,000 families between April and July. The group—founded in 2015 with the mission of “preserving the multicultural identity” of Atlanta’s famous immigrant corridor—also devoted itself to other urgent pandemic responses, such as connecting communities with Covid testing and vaccines. Later in 2020, We Love BuHi launched a program called Feeding Families—a series of regular pop-up events where anybody who wanted to could swing by and get some food. 


“We really made it a point to lessen the official feeling, the social-services feel, and we didn’t require IDs,” said Lily Pabian, We Love BuHi’s executive director. “As long as you’re in line, you’re showing us that you need.” Over the span of the pandemic, the organization connected more than 100,000 people with groceries. 


Goodr—the Atlanta organization that has launched a series of pop-up groceries around the metro—helped design the store. | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Now, We Love BuHi is expanding this work with an initiative that models a new way for feeding families in need: the Little Bodega, a free store where people within the service area—primarily Brookhaven, Chamblee, and Norcross—can pick up groceries. Debuting in December, the Little Bodega is a pilot program that will run for a year and involve 15 families who’ve been invited to participate. 


While Covid has eased, the need for food hasn’t. Food insecurity was higher in 2022 than it was in 2020—the combined effect of rising prices and the end of pandemic-era aid programs. In 2022, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture released in October, an estimated 17 million households experienced trouble getting enough food, compared to about 13.8 million households in 2020. 


At the end of the yearlong pilot, Pabian hopes to have tested the viability of such a model. | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

With the Little Bodega, the broader idea is to explore a different model for helping constituents from a diverse array of backgrounds and traditions. The store stocks staples that span cultures: rice and dry beans, breads and spices, and fresh produce. We Love BuHi learned from Feeding Families to offer, for instance, “less kale, but more cabbage,” Pabian said. Many shoppers want corn and tomatoes; people from AAPI communities might hope to find bok choy. 


The store stocks staples that span cultures: rice and dry beans, breads and spices, and fresh produce. | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

The families were chosen based on data that We Love BuHi collected during its efforts over the past few years. The Little Bodega, Pabian says, will model the kind of flexibility and cultural sensitivity that emerged as a key component of Feeding Families: “We made it a point to foster an event where it’s not something you go to and it’s stodgy and stuffy. We want it to be fun, so that when people come it’s like, oh, they have people that speak their language. We weaved in cultural traditions and holidays,” like Día de Los Muertos. 


The lack of stuffiness is built into the Little Bodega, Pabian said: “When somebody walks in, it’s not just a sterile room that they’ve had to make an appointment in.” The store was designed with the help of Goodr, the Atlanta organization that has launched a series of pop-up groceries around the metro, who Pabian said provided “those personal touches that make it more homey and comfortable”—like a wooden produce display. “You don’t feel like you’re walking into some sort of pantry type of model.” The grocery has regular hours like any other store, albeit limited—a few hours once a week. People can walk in, fill a bag, and leave. (Funding for the initiative is from United Way of Greater Atlanta and Mazon, through the Latino Community Fund of Georgia; the Salvation Army provided space for the store.)


Though Pabian is expecting a consistent group of 15 families participating in the pilot this year, she said it’s a flexible model: “There’s going to be times when we hear about emergency crisis situations—we’re not going to turn away from that.” If one family can’t make it some week, another might be invited to take their place. There are more than 25 families on the waiting list.


The grocery has regular hours like any other store, albeit limited—a few hours once a week. | Photo: Alyssa Pointer

At the end of the yearlong pilot, Pabian said, she hopes to have tested the viability of such a model, and gain insight into any next steps through feedback from the families participating. “When people think of data, it’s not always numbers, right? To me, it’s more of the testimonials,” she said. “Working with the community, them understanding that this is a test model, so that we get their feedback: Is this working? What do you envision?”


“It’s really shaped around giving people hope and dignity,” said Pabian, who has led We Love Buford Highway since 2019. “And I know that personally because my family was hungry when we were young, and when we first lived on Buford Highway. If we had an opportunity for something like this, I think that would have changed a lot of things in my family.”

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