How Black Communities Are Bridging the Food Access Gap

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When COVID-19 closed New York City schools, Tony Hillery grew troubled about the fact that food and housing-insecure children were largely relying on pre-packaged meals for sustenance. As executive director of Harlem Grown, a nonprofit that serves youth through mentoring and teaching about urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition, Hillery wanted to provide the neediest children in the community with a way to access fresh food during the pandemic.

“So, I reached out to one of our supporters who agreed to donate some money, and I went to a local restaurant called Fieldtrip—run by James Beard award-winning Chef J.J. Johnson—and I said, ‘J.J., if I come and buy 500 meals, will you bring back your entire kitchen staff?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ So, he did that, and I delivered the meals to one homeless shelter.”

The response online was so overwhelming that it allowed Harlem Grown to expand its reach. Since March, it has provided roughly 13,500 hot nutritious meals to families in nine Harlem-area homeless shelters, six days a week. The meals include organically sourced proteins, vegetables, and grains.

“We call the program Harlem Helping Harlem,” explained Hillery (pictured above) about the meals Harlem Grown is purchasing for homeless shelters. “I raise the money. I target a locally owned restaurant where some of our community members work, and then we feed our children. In our opinion, it’s a win-win-win. Families are fed, and that makes me happy.”

As COVID-19 cases rise—disproportionately affecting people of color—and Black Lives Matter protests persist, African American-led organizations have worked to ensure that the most vulnerable members of their communities have access to high-quality food. For Harlem Grown, that means feeding families in homeless shelters, but for other organizations, that entails providing Black trans people with nutritious meals or sending groceries to Black people who became food insecure after civil unrest swept their neighborhoods. Non-Black allies of color are also taking steps to support food justice—providing meals to a Black Lives Matter chapter, championing Black chefs, and better fostering workplace diversity.

‘It’s Not Just About the Food’

Having started Harlem Grown nine years ago with the goal of using food justice to spark social change, Hillery said the food inequality that COVID-19 has exacerbated existed long before the pandemic. To combat it in Harlem, the organization renovates abandoned lots and transforms them into urban farms. It now operates a dozen urban agriculture facilities—including soil-based farms, hydroponic greenhouses, and school gardens.

“Last year, we grew almost 8,000 pounds of organic produce, and we gave it away free of charge,” Hillery said. “We run out every week—it’s all gone. We do cooking demos, and families participate in the cooking demos, and they eat everything we prepare, so the need and the want is there.”

A thank you from Harlem Grown for their gofundme.

But working poor parents, many with more than one job, may not have the time to regularly cook nutritious meals for their children. Hillery said this is how families end up on the fast food track. It’s not that they don’t want fresh or organic meals; it’s that they can’t afford them or don’t have time to prepare them.

“It’s not just about the food,” he said. “In poor communities, it’s environmental, it’s substandard education, substandard housing—it’s all of these social injustices piled one on top of each other.”

Getting Groceries to Chicago’s Southside

From Harlem to Chicago’s Southside, the story is similar. After residents in the Windy City filled the streets to protest the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, widespread looting resulted in store closures. Ultimately, the neighborhoods with few full-service grocery stores became even more food insecure as a result. To help out, Eva Maria Lewis, a 21-year-old sociology student from Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, launched a grassroots effort called On the Ground Chi to provide free groceries to residents of communities hard hit by supermarket closures.

“It’s not just about the food. In poor communities, it’s environmental, it’s substandard education, substandard housing—it’s all of these social injustices piled one on top of each other.”

Just 10 days after Lewis announced the initiative on social media, more than 2,000 people applied for groceries. On the Ground Chi managed to help about 500 families during those first days, prioritizing residents of the city’s historically Black and economically disadvantaged Southside and Westside. It got groceries to these families by having volunteers shop in Northside neighborhoods with plenty of supermarkets and deliver the goods to the city’s most marginalized communities. They encouraged the families they served to make custom grocery store lists as well.

“I went to food pantries with my mom growing up,” Lewis said. “That’s how we got a lot of [our] food. The food pantry provided an immediate need, but I wanted to give people the experience of being able to choose what they wanted.”

Shopping on the Northside offers families more choices than they have on the Southside, which is more than 15 miles away and requires about a 35-minute drive, depending on one’s exact location (and access to transportation). This was the case even before the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the city. Imani Crews, a friend of Lewis’s who is helping her with the On the Ground Chi effort, said the shopping experience on the Northside differs significantly from the Southside.

An On The Ground Chi grocery delivery on the Southside. (Photo courtesy of Ontheground Chi)

An On The Ground Chi grocery delivery on the Southside. (Photo courtesy of On The Ground Chi)

“It’s really interesting to see the types of produce available at those [Northside] stores,” she said. “They have bunches of oranges, apples, quinoa, bok choy. That’s the cool thing about the program. People have the opportunity to get groceries from a high-quality grocery store.”

Continuing the initiative depends on the ability of On the Ground Chi to fundraise. Lewis didn’t disclose how much money she’s has raised so far, but wants this effort to continue well beyond the protests and the pandemic. The families she served expressed genuine surprise that volunteers were willing to find and deliver groceries for them at no charge.

“We’re excited to make it happen,” Lewis said. “Food is freedom. It is the ability to have what you need.”

Serving the Black Trans Community

For members of the Black trans community, who are more likely to face housing and employment discrimination, getting what they need can be a struggle. In addition to facing high rates of homelessness and hunger, food insecurity in the trans community is also a problem. And, for Black trans people, racism adds another layer of adversity to the challenges that LGBTQ people face generally.

The Okra Project's Ianne Fields Stewart. (Photo by Fafsa Parachute)

Ianne Fields Stewart. (Photo by Fafsa Parachute)

With this in mind, actress Ianne Fields Stewart started the Okra Project in New York City in 2018. The grassroots organization provides home-cooked, nutritious, and culturally relevant meals to Black trans people. The Okra Project, which fundraises to provide this help, pays Black trans chefs to cook these meals and also collaborates with partner institutions to fight food insecurity in the community.

Stewart named her organization the Okra Project because she views the vegetable as a symbol of community solidarity. Enslaved Africans, she pointed out, wove okra seeds into their hair during the transatlantic slave trade. “It was a way of carrying food and sustenance over the sea to this new world we were being abducted to,” she said. “And so we wanted to, in honor of that legacy of community and sustenance, name the project after that plant.”

During this time of unprecedented protests in honor of Black lives—including widespread calls to recognize and address the additional oppression and violence that Black trans people face—the Okra Project has gained more visibility. The outpouring of support it has received during a period Stewart describes as a “social revolution” has enabled the organization to dedicate $15,000 to create the Nina Pop Mental Health Recovery Fund and the Tony McDade Mental Health Recovery Fund. Pop was a fast-food worker found stabbed to death in May in her home in Sikeston, Missouri. And police in Tallahassee, Florida, shot McDade in May; he was a suspect in a fatal stabbing linked to a domestic violence dispute.

In addition to meeting the mental health needs of Black trans people, more visibility allows the Okra Project to better fight food insecurity. Through its International Grocery Fund, the organization sent $40 for groceries to Black trans people anywhere in the world (the program is not currently accepting new applications). And courtesy of the Okra Academy—its weekend training program—Okra Project chefs familiarize Black trans people with a variety of recipes.

The Okra Project's bartender Jamari Thomas and Chef Clarke Johnson. (Photo by Alex Cooper Webster.)

The Okra Project’s bartender Jamari Thomas and Chef Clarke Johnson. (Photo by Alex Cooper Webster.)

Stewart never thought she’d become a food access advocate, but said she got involved in the effort because she’s witnessed food inequality play out in the lives of people she knows and loves.

“I would feel the realities of it, both personally and communally, but, overall, food insecurity was never something I was intentionally trying to seek out as part of my work,” Stewart said. “But we do the work because we want our people to have access to the resources that they deserve. Black trans people are among the most resourceful individuals ever, because the most marginalized often have to be. The community doesn’t need to be saved—we need to have the resources that we deserve.”

The fast-casual restaurant junzi kitchen, which specializes in homestyle Chinese cooking, is partnering with the Okra Project to provide meals to Black trans people. In March, junzi launched its Share a Meal program to ensure that frontline workers had healthy meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Black Lives Matter protests took off, however, it has expanded this effort to send meals to food insecure communities.

A junzi kitchen Share-A-Meal delivery. (Photo courtesy of junzi kitchen)

A junzi kitchen Share-A-Meal delivery. (Photo courtesy of junzi kitchen)

Junzi is also donating all July proceeds from its junzi Pantry Essentials store to Harlem Grown and Black Lives Matter of Greater New York as well as making its job postings more accessible to foster workforce diversity. And through its Distance Dining event series, the business will highlight the contributions African Americans have made to the culinary world.

With restaurants in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, many of its staff members are Black, according to CEO Yong Zhao, who grew up near Beijing, China.

“It’s kind of natural for us to be able to understand and support the movement, not only for Black Lives Matter, but overall for a society with more equality and diversity,” Zhao said.

Junzi has a history of using food to explore the commonalities between different racial groups. Through its Distance Dining series, which pairs food with storytelling, it has highlighted how Chinese food intersects with food from other cultures. Most recently, the series featured Chef Pierre Thiam of the Harlem-based Senegalese restaurant Teranga. The upcoming event on July 10 will include Kia Damon, a freelance chef and culinary director for the food media organization Cherry Bombe, discussing Creole Chinese food.

“Given the pandemic, we want to continue to cook creatively, but also use food to investigate the intersection of food and different cultures,” said junzi Chef Lucas Sin. “We also think it’s imperative that everybody who participates in the food system recognize the foundational contributions of Black chefs to the American food culture.”

“It’s imperative that everybody who participates in the food system recognize the foundational contributions of Black chefs to the American food culture.”

Junzi is not only highlighting Black culinarians and serving meals to food-insecure African Americans, but also changing its hiring practices so that it can recruit people beyond the traditional routes of college campuses and alumni networks. By changing its approach to internships and mentorships, it hopes to create more racial diversity in leadership and management roles.

Ultimately, Zhao said, junzi has a simple goal.

“We want to use food as a common language to be able to bridge gaps, to heal the wounds, and to inspire other people to use their own food to bridge more gaps,” Zhao said. “The future is always about curating and cultivating communication.”

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