“The end consumer or the end business has no use for it,” said Mickie. “Essentially, [companies are] getting a tax break off waste by giving it to people in need. It looks like food, but what kind of food is it? Is it food the community needs? Is it food the community wants?”
These questions sit in tension with the current moment’s renewed attention to emergency food, as late-night hosts sit in their living rooms, soliciting donations for both food banks and food “rescue” organizations. New York’s state government has played a part: In May, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched the Nourish NY initiative to address agricultural excess resulting from the sudden loss of sales to schools, institutions, workplaces, and restaurants.
Funding went directly to emergency food providers to help them buy food from hurting local farms, a shift in the approach that usually relies on donated surplus. In this way, Cuomo replicated the process of starting with surplus in the agricultural industry to address hunger and poverty. Rather than give money to those in need, or even to smaller- scale farms directly, he gave it to the food banks and pantries, and trusted that through their vast bureaucracies, the money and resources would trickle down.
Emergency food efforts that spring up overnight are not sustainable, as many of the so-called mutual aid efforts behind them use the rhetoric of community solidarity but show little accountability to the community. True mutual aid is a consistent presence in communities, not only during times of emergency, and involves reciprocity. The very nature of these efforts—one group giving, another group taking—make true mutual aid impossible.
Some of the groups involved have said that these efforts come out of “love,” with goals of “reparations” and Black liberation, but that doesn’t change the actual model, which is pure charity. And with efforts that are charity-based, the hard labor done by volunteers to organize, aggregate, and transport food, form an unsustainable model, fueled by the privilege of time, energy, and millions in emergency food funds. What happens when volunteers are worn out or go back to work? Or when the state, city, and private foundation money runs out, but folks are still hungry?
“Emergency food is addressing immediate hunger, but immediate hunger has become persistent,” said Mickie. For any of these current efforts to actually benefit the community, she added, they would have to both address the root causes of hunger (poverty), and work to eventually put themselves out of business, instead of constantly being celebrated and growing. Otherwise, “you are making people reliant on something that’s not sustainable,” Mickie said.
There are ways to help those in immediate need with dignity and care, but doing so involves building relationships and talking to those who are already engaged in food sovereignty and food justice work. Organizations such as Neighbors Together, created a model, pre-COVID, that addresses the immediate need for food while working to organize participants to address the roots of hunger and homelessness.
Long standing community farms like Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance in Brownsville have adjusted and shifted to providing free fresh produce to the community. The Central Brooklyn Food Coop (of which I am a founding member) has fundraised to create Hold Down BK, which seeks to provide emergency food as they bring awareness of the long term goal of a community-owned grocery in Central Brooklyn. These groups all take an approach that involves being thoughtful about getting to know their neighbors, supporting them in ways they ask to be supported, and finding the best resources for that support. Yet the work of these long-standing efforts get little notice compared to the splashy coverage given to novel, flash-in-the-pan emergency food efforts.
Stephanie Esquivel exemplifies the need for longer-term structural change that really begins with centering those directly impacted by the economic downturn. She lost her job in March as a direct service provider, and landed a job managing a kitchen, returning to the hospitality industry, which she had worked in off and on for 20 years. Along with her concerns about pests, she worries about the temperature of the refrigerator, as different types of food are put there by volunteers.