Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams-Paisley launched The Store, their free grocery store in Nashville, in March 2020, opening their doors a few months earlier than planned due to a tornado that affected the city as well as the pandemic. In the year since, The Store has delivered enough free food to make nearly 1.3 million meals.
"Delivering these meals, it really is emotional," Williams-Paisley told PEOPLE. "When you pull up and they're waiting, they're waiting in the door. And I think, 'What would they be doing if we weren't showing up today?'" The Store moved to a delivery model at the beginning of the pandemic to better serve at-risk seniors in the area and also offers pick-up service for families, and over 350 volunteers have helped deliver meals over the past year, including Paisley and Williams-Paisley.
The couple based The Store on Unity Shoppe in Santa Barbara, California, which they first visited around eight years ago while at their second home in The Golden State with their two sons, Huck, now 14, and Jasper, now 11. "Basically our children were acting spoiled," Paisley said. "They needed to realize that there were people in need and they needed to see hunger."
Williams-Paisley, who volunteered with her mom at food pantries when she was young, called a friend for a recommendation on where she could take her sons and was pointed to Unity Shoppe, a free grocery store providing temporary assistance to those struggling with food insecurity with a focus on respecting its clients.
"[My mother and I] used to go to a food bank and we'd dole out peas and turkey to people around Thanksgiving, and I always sensed a little bit of resentment and I don't think I fully understood why until I got older," she said, adding that at Unity Shoppe, "people have that sense of dignity and choice and it's different from getting a handout. It was transformative for us bringing the kids in and letting them see that, letting them normalize and sort of erase the margin."
After their initial visit, the Paisley family returned to Unity Shoppe multiple times to volunteer and decided to bring the concept to Nashville with The Store in partnership with Belmont University, which offers health and legal aid as well as music therapy to customers. "This has been our dream," Williams-Paisley said. "People will be able to come and shop with dignity and make choices for their family."