‘Food from people to people’: Mutual aid program feeds thousands with barrier-free aid

Once a week, the storeroom behind Gateway Community Services on Forest Avenue in Portland is transformed and the empty space becomes a cornucopia. By mid-morning, 50-pound bags of black beans, lentils, and rice are stacked high on pallets, alongside countless boxes of bananas, limes, fresh herbs, and vegetables. Volunteer “rationers” stand at tables spaced 10 feet apart, portioning the bulk foods into family-sized shares. 

By afternoon, the rationers are joined by volunteer delivery drivers, who by the evening have cleared the space once again, having distributed thousands of pounds of food to hundreds of families in need. 

This weekly act of community care is accomplished by Presenté Maine’s Food Brigade, a mutual-aid project that began in March 2020 in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Presenté Maine is a community organization that advocates for the Latinx people in the state. The Food Brigade is organized by Presenté and powered by volunteers who offer their labor as an act of solidarity, guided by a principle of barrier-free aid: “No eligibility screenings, no burdensome applications, just food from people to people.”

The success of the Food Brigade in meeting the urgency of the moment and providing for communities has led local institutions to refer people to their services, prompting organizers to ask: Why can’t our state and local institutions meet community needs on their own?

‘Food from people to people’

A Presente volunteer drops off food in May 2020. | Presente Maine, Facebook

When the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived last March, organizers with Presenté were quick to recognize the crisis’ impending impacts on Latinx communities, people of color, and poor people across the state. Just days after the first COVID case was recorded in the state, Presenté launched the Food Brigade, a mutual-aid project that delivers weekly food rations to people in need. 

Since its first week of operation, during which rations were distributed to 50 people, the Food Brigade’s capacity has grown massively: every week, the project now delivers 15,000 pounds of food to 2,200 people in Portland, Lewiston and surrounding towns. 

Organizers credit the Food Brigade’s success to its community-led approach and commitment to barrier-free aid.

“We’re providing resources that have been needed in the community for a long time,” said Crystal Cron, president of Presenté, “and providing them at the direction of the community.” 

In a sign of the program’s reputation, local Portland institutions constitute the Food Brigade’s second largest source of referrals for aid.

“Despite Presenté starting off with $500 in the bank at the start of the pandemic, our help was solicited by caseworkers at established and resourced organizations and institutions like: Portland Public Schools, The City of Portland, and The Opportunity Alliance,” reads Presenté’s recently released Interim Pandemic Report. 

When asked about the referrals, Lily Lynch, vice president of communications at the Opportunity Alliance, Cumberland County’s designated community action agency, said the organization “is grateful for all of our amazing community partners that have worked together over the past year to meet the increased need of individuals and families across Maine.”

Portland Public Schools, the largest source of referrals from these groups, did not respond to Beacon’s request for comment. 

“We know how to find people, and connect to people, in ways that mainstream organizations don’t even think about,” explained Cron, who added that these institutions have multi-million dollar budgets and yet, “it seems, the last budget line is always direct support.” 

‘Identifying the barriers that exist for all’

With close ties to the local Latinx community, the Food Brigade began with the specific intent of mitigating potential harm to undocumented people, who face unique challenges in the pandemic. In Maine, undocumented people are ineligible for social programs like unemployment, MaineCare, SNAP, and General Assistance, despite paying into the tax revenue that funds them. Without access to these programs during the pandemic, many undocumented people are unable to safely shelter at home: if you don’t work, you can’t afford to feed your family or keep a roof over your head. 

Despite Presenté’s focus on advocating for Latinx and undocumented people, the Food Brigade does not limit aid to those communities. In Maine, more than one in 10 people are food insecure or live below the poverty line. This circumstance disproportionately affects people of color, with 28% of families of color in Maine classified as food insecure — more than twice the rate of white households — according to a 2019 report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy. 

“We invest a lot of time working with immigrant leaders, African American leaders, and white poor people, and making those connections across communities and identifying the barriers to access that exist for all of us,” said Cron. While personal identity and ties to the Latinx community are important to her, she said, “I also understand that what we’re really striving to do is transform and liberate ourselves and connect all poor people.”

The labor behind the mutual-aid project comes from volunteer “brigadists,” who say they contribute as an act of solidarity – not charity – holding to the belief that the current structure of public health and food systems fail to meet the needs of all people.  

“Participating in this work has forced me to grapple with why the Food Brigade exists in the first place,” said Tophe Thorne, a volunteer brigadist. “We shouldn’t have to rely on organizers like Crystal to provide our communities with food and resources, to help them survive, amid a pandemic.” 

Thorne believes that this responsibility to provide community aid should be met by government social programs, which are often the first cut, and that action with the Food Brigade is as much about providing aid as it is about working to transform our food systems and society. 

When the Food Brigade began, Cron said it’s purpose was to deliver the immediate necessities for survival to communities in need. Now nearly a year later, Cron said the Food Brigade serves an additional purpose: to model a different approach to social services that includes community-led and barrier-free, direct support, which has proven its success in an unprecedented time of crisis. 

“What we really want is for our government to make these changes and to meet our needs, and to put people first,” says Cron, “to follow this model where we’re trusting in community and trusting people with direct experience to lead that transformation.”

Photo: A Presente volunteer stacks boxes in the organization’s warehouse. | Presente! Maine, Facebook

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