Organizing to Feed the Hungry
New mutual aid groups are here to stay
By Mary Steffenhagen
Around 2 pm on a Saturday, New Yorkers begin to line the sidewalk around Herbert Von King Park in Bed-Stuy. Some have been here since early morning to save a spot in line. In an hour, a volunteer will hand each person a cardboard box nearly overflowing with an assortment of food—and a bouquet of flowers.
Vickie Huffman, a personal trainer currently out of work, bikes over from Park Slope almost every week to pick up food for her family. “They can’t really afford the fresh foods. My daughter has two children so it’s not so easy for her to pack up and come out,” she said. “I’m really grateful for the fresh food.”
This is the weekly Food Not Bombs food share. It’s been a staple of the neighborhood for over a decade. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, over 1 million people in New York City were considered “food insecure” — in other words, they weren’t getting enough food to eat.
Feeding America, a nonprofit food bank organization, now estimates that over 2 million New Yorkers are going hungry because of the pandemic. Mutual aid groups like the anarchist collective Food Not Bombs stepped up, along with many churches, to meet the unprecedented need. As the pandemic wears on, many newly formed collectives are starting to think about where they fit into the city landscape for the long term.
⇒ cont. Mutual aid is a foundational principle of anarchist politics, rooted in the idea that cooperation is baked into human nature; helping each other, not competing, is how people survive. Thadeaus Umpster, 39, a volunteer with A New World In Our Hearts NYC and Food Not Bombs, said he thinks the pandemic is forcing people to recognize this.
“Now we see as a world—not only as a country, but the whole world—some disaster, some tragedy, some whatever can befall you, and it’s not your fault,” he said.
For some, a change has been noticeable. Kalvin Gil, 37, recently returned to the city after serving a six-year prison sentence. He was surprised to find that people were giving out free food all over the city.
“Things have been hard for me because I’ve only been out three months. I haven’t been able to get my New York State ID cause I’m waiting on my Social Security card,” he said.
Some food pantries require valid IDs and proof of address, but mutual aid groups give food to everyone who needs it—no questions asked. Similarly, community fridges have become a crucial part of the food landscape for those in need. They’re stocked by autonomous volunteers as well as groups like A New World In Our Hearts who get donated food. A New World In Our Hearts operated just one fridge prior to the pandemic. Now, New Yorkers have taken it upon themselves to set up these free fridges in at least 64 locations across the city, relying on each other to keep them safe and full.
Fresh Produce and Vegetarian Offerings
Mamasir Rodriguez’s gluten, MSG and meat intolerances already made shopping difficult. Then it got worse. When the city went into lockdown and she didn’t feel safe heading to a grocery store, she was unable to find enough she could eat through food pantries. Rodriguez also tried the city’s vegetarian food packages from the 311 line, but those also contained products she couldn’t eat.
“So mostly, I was just drinking tea. I was just drinking tea, water and fasting,” said Rodriguez, 46.
Now that she feels safer leaving the house, the Food Not Bombs share is one of the only consistent free food sources she’s found during the pandemic because of its fresh produce and vegetarian offerings.
Now we see as a world—not only as a country, but the whole world—some disaster, some tragedy, some whatever can befall you, and it’s not your fault.
Since pandemic unemployment assistance under the federal CARES act has expired, freelance workers have seen little direct economic relief. Immigrant workers, too, have been heavily impacted, as a June 2020 study found that half of NYC’s immigrant workers lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Many immigrant workers are eligible for benefits like unemployment and SNAP. But for undocumented immigrants, that’s not even an option. Volunteers from South Brooklyn Mutual Aid and Queens Care Collective said the majority of those they assist with food are undocumented, which makes long-term sustainability of their efforts even more crucial.
“Those groups have very little resources to turn to except for groups like ours, or the community fridges,” said Andrea Atehortua, 32, a volunteer with Queens Care Collective.
Since March, mutual aid groups have sprung up in nearly every neighborhood, from Mott Haven to Sunset Park—all volunteer-led and run from the ground up. They’ve provided food to thousands of New Yorkers through meal deliveries, grocery shopping, food boxes and community fridges. But as the pandemic rages on and takes a lingering physical and mental toll on the city, these groups are faced with new challenges.
The Mott Haven Community Fridge was under threat of eviction. East Brooklyn Mutual Aid recently posted on social media that they were too low on funds to continue their efforts that week. Queens Care Collective had to stop cooking prepared meals for elderly neighbors due to a lack of volunteers.
Naomi Solomon, 35, a volunteer with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, worries that politicians might see the mutual aid movement as a way to avoid their responsibility to provide more economic relief, adding more stress to volunteers.
“It’s a really beautiful thing that neighbors will feed each other and go out of their way and donate and work to make this happen,” she said.
“But it’s also really dangerous to be like, ‘Hey de Blasio, hey City Council, don’t worry about it. We got this,’ when really, there should be infrastructure in place for all of us.”
Nonetheless, NYC’s mutual aid movement has been resilient—and New Yorkers have been generous. Just five days after posting they were out of funds, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid leaders said they had received enough in donations to surpass their fundraising goal. South Brooklyn Mutual Aid has raised over $210,000 since March through donations and T-shirt sales.
After the Mott Haven Community Fridge posted on Instagram about losing their space, the niece of a nearby bodega owner saw the post and took action. She helped convince her uncle to house the fridge just 20 feet away from its original location.
While volunteers say they are concerned about burnout, as long as there are hungry New Yorkers, they have no plans to scale back their efforts.
“To do mutual aid is basically to live in the world as you want to see it,” said Queens Care Collective’s Atehortua.