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Mutual Aid Groups Reckon With the Future: ‘We Don’t Want This to Just Be a Fad’

Mutual aid networks swelled during the pandemic. How will they continue to grow and serve once it’s over?

Signs reading “free food” and “today’s menu” are posted to the sliding glass doors of a well-stocked industrial fridge. Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

In the early days of the pandemic, storied community activists and those newly unemployed, or working from home for the first time, came together to join or form mutual aid networks across the country. These groups have spent months building volunteer rolls, creating community connections, and perfecting the use of Slack as a virtual dispatcher. And with states opening back up despite the pandemic wearing on, some are trying to shift the resources and energy to fight a mounting challenge: food insecurity, which will outlast the pandemic.

Some projects aim to rewrite entire lanes of our food system: seeds and gardening advice distributed to hubs around the country, a quickly growing network of free fridges to store fresh food, and fleets of cyclist couriers ready to fill in the gaps. The new movement is also centered around food dignity: letting people eat according to their preferences, rather than subsist on whatever donations are available at a food bank that week.

“Distribution is the number-one reason why food injustice happens,” says Sasha Verma, a member of the operations team of Corona Courier, a mutual aid group that serves most of New York City. “We are helping all these people who can’t leave their homes. Who was helping them before? I don’t fucking know.”

After months managing dozens of daily dispatches across the city, in June, the group decided to pivot to a longer-term strategy it hopes will establish a groundwork for food security, without relying so much on central dispatching or coordination. It set up “pods” of about 50 families and buildings across the city, matching them with couriers who could address their needs more directly, which helps form community bonds. Basically, the plan is a slightly formalized way of matching folks in need of food with neighbors who can help them get it.

The pandemic, and its wave of unemployment, attracted tons of first-timers to mutual aid groups; folks who had the privilege of never experiencing food insecurity saw first-hand how hard it is just to get groceries to hungry people. Verma says she joined her group, a citywide grocery and supply delivery effort that attracted more than 500 volunteers, because she had a hunch no government or charity agency was up for the challenge ahead. That sunk in when she found out the state unemployment office was sending people to the newly formed Corona Courier instead of a more established service.

“I’m not surprised, because they can’t even do something as simple as what we were doing, which is just buying someone else groceries,” she says.

Corona Courier groceries are usually paid for through donations from Abolition Action Grocery Fund (which you can donate to here), an offshoot of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. It’s raised nearly $80,000 so far, mostly from donations of about $25. That kind of small fundraising is key to the future of the efforts, organizers say. Mutual aid groups often have a distaste for some of the traditional nonprofits, which they say are bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape, and that they believe exclude people who don’t fit their specific requirements for aid. One of the guiding missions of this new era of support is to trust in people to take what they need.

“When we think about institutionalized food aid — for instance, CalFresh or food stamps or other means of distributing food to people — there’s a lot of means testing,” Gabriela Alemán of the Mission Meals Coalition, a San Francisco mutual aid organization that started in March, told the Extra Spicy podcast recently. “There’s a lot of questioning of, ‘Do these people deserve it? By what parameters do they deserve it? And how do we give it to them by however much we decide that they need?’”

Mission Meals Collective, she said, wants to instill trust in its members so there are no roadblocks to people seeking food through its resources, and eliminate the “savior complex” of other institutions that think they know best what a community needs. The group has set up a Patreon membership program to keep donations flowing every month.

“We’re not here to police people in what they do or don’t need,” she told the podcast. “I think also people fundamentally don’t understand that under-resourced communities, just because one family or one household might be under-resourced, that doesn’t mean that they completely forget their own sense of humanity for their neighbor.”

Liz Baldwin, the founder of Corona Courier, says her group hopes to expand its pod system to more families in the future (they’re still accepting volunteers, too), but keeping the agility of a loosely organized mutual aid group is crucial.

“I worked for [a nonprofit], and I just see how bureaucracy can really scramble missions,” she says. “There’s no part of me that’s like, ‘I should take this project and form it into a nonprofit.’ I think you lose the ability to really interact with individuals and try to help them in a way that makes sense for them. A lot of times what happens in nonprofits is that money gets kind of weird.”

Food insecurity is not just a pandemic problem: About 11 percent of Americans, or or 35 million people, were food insecure in 2018, meaning they didn’t have enough food to meet the nutritional needs of all members of their households due to money or access, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Advocates have little hope the federal government will help, while state and local governments are strapped for cash and food pantries are being strained. About 40 percent of people visiting food banks during the pandemic are first-time visitors, according to NBC News.

Mutual aid as a concept is not new, but it’s never been activated on this scale before, with the entire country on lockdown and so many able-bodied people out of work with nothing to do but help. It doesn’t hurt that this is the first crisis of the digital workflow era, when Slack, Zoom, and Airtable make complex coordination easy. Picking up an aid request can fit between gossip with coworkers on another Slack channel.

“We don’t want this to just be a fad. We want this to be a movement where we can be sustainable over the winter,” says Ash Godfrey, one of the people behind Chicago’s Love Fridge project. “This is something that 10 years from now could be a thing. We want people to do it right.”

The group was recently contacted by a city alderman to talk about adding a fridge outside of his office. Godfrey wasn’t expecting help from the government, but this connection fits its plans for serving the community for years to come.

“We believe that this relationship will give us more credibility as a movement,” Godfrey says. “While we are a community and people’s movement first and foremost, the more support we can get from those with resources and power, the stronger we will be. We are here to stay and having the alderman’s support is affirmation.”

The Love Fridge is now working to solve a major roadblock to its longevity: surviving brutal Chicago winters. The group is setting up a volunteer management program (which you can get involved with here) to make sure the fridges are maintained daily, working on blueprints for shelters around the machines, and talking with a community fridge group in Canada about how to survive a bitter January and February.

“If there’s a fridge everywhere, can you imagine the lives that would change?” Godfrey says.

Free fridges are not a panacea to food insecurity, says Sam Pawliger, who is heading up a community fridge project out of the Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid group in Brooklyn. But they do help break down a barrier: Even a person who might feel embarrassed to call a mutual aid group for help could walk down the street to grab a sandwich from a fridge.

The fridge has been adding some elements to fill the gaps where food pantries fall short: When organizers found out residents of a nearby shelter were not allowed to bring food inside, they attached a can opener to the fridge and added disposable cutlery to an attached shelf.

“I saw this as something that we could stand up quickly to help build solidarity with our neighbors,” Pawliger says, “and as a resource to both combat food waste and food insecurity, both of which are major issues in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.”

Of course, being able to produce your own food with consistency is the most secure thing. This is what Nate Kleinman hopes to inspire with the Cooperative Gardens Commission, which he helped start in March to collect and send seeds to hubs across the country. Kleinman learned the potential of mutual aid when working with Occupy Sandy in New Jersey in 2012, which was key to helping dig out homes and provide supplies to people deeply affected by the hurricane.

“In a lot of ways, Occupy Sandy changed the way that the official powers that be in disaster relief do their work,” he says, citing a 2013 report from the Department of Homeland Security that praised the work of the all-volunteer group and its non-hierarchical structure. “There’s a much bigger recognition and importance of mutual aid organizations in disaster relief.”

In the start of the pandemic, Kleinman saw a seed shortage coming: Many commercial companies were dealing with a huge surge in demand; others were shutting down entirely. The commission is providing donated seeds and advice for folks with home plots, community farms, and tribal gardens. The project started at the outset of the pandemic, but its goals are targeted at getting people to rethink how they eat.

“Seeds are at the root of all food security. This is a ‘teach a person to fish’ kind of issue,” he says. “If we’re giving people what they need to actually grow food themselves, that’s going to be much more sustainable in the long term at addressing food security.”

The group is working with local partners across the country to get seeds to disadvantaged or marginalized communities, places that were dealing with food insecurity before the coronavirus hit. Unlike other mutual aid groups, which tend to be located in population centers, the seeds can reach people in rural areas, with hubs in Mississippi, Texas, western North Carolina, and more. So far, they’ve set up 217 hubs across the country and reached an estimated 10,000 gardens, Kleinman says. And they’re accepting more resource donations on their website.

Donated seeds are sent in bulk to the group’s Philadelphia base, where they are then repackaged and distributed to the hubs. Some are sent to people through the mail, others have set up distribution hubs in neighborhood libraries and other public areas. Now, the group is focusing on fall seeds: cabbage, leafy greens, root vegetables, radishes, and cover crops, to keep the soil healthy for years to come.

“People have taken for granted that there will always be farm workers and farms producing food, and with the clamp down that also happened before the pandemic at the border, the challenges for migrant workers are very real,” Kleinman says. “I think it would be surprising if there weren’t more food shortages in the immediate future.”

The idea of exorcising capitalism from food access is an ambitious one. But organizers say the pandemic has shown that community-based mutual aid may be the only way forward.

“When I sparked this up, I never thought about, ‘What’s the government going to do for me?’” says Ramon Norwood, the founder of the Love Fridge. “That’s what we’re learning with the pandemic. It’s not enough. It shouldn’t just be the bare minimum.”

Tim Donnelly is a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter.