Image: Joel Muniz​/Unsplash

Since May, Justice for Migrant Workers (Justicia) has delivered over 2,000 boxes of fresh produce to migrant farm workers across the province. 

Each of the FoodShare food boxes feed two to four people, meaning that thousands of workers have been relying on these deliveries. Co-ordinating weekly food box drop-offs to farms where workers are quarantining as a result of the massive number of COVID-19 outbreaks has become a mainstay of Justicia’s work over the past eight months.

Justicia’s shift toward mutual aid efforts is not unique. We have seen initiatives like these cropping up across Toronto since the outset of the pandemic.

Groups like the People’s Pantry, This Way Up, Uplift Kitchen, and Community Fridges TO were born out of the oppressive circumstances created by COVID-19 (read: the exacerbation of structural poverty, systemic racism and unfettered capitalism). 

Mutual aid and the politics of anti-hunger

It’s not surprising that many of these initiatives are rooted in the distribution of food to community. Yes, this is a direct response to national spikes in food insecurity as a result of the pandemic, but it is also embedded in a much larger story about mutual aid.

 Mutual aid efforts have a long-standing history of mobilizing food as an organizing tool — as a meeting point around which communities come together.

The Black Panther Party’s (BPP) free breakfast program is a prime example of this marriage of political organizing and community food action. In 1969, the BPP launched a “survival program” serving free breakfast to school children — grits, fruit, toast, eggs and milk. What began with 11 kids in Oakland, California grew into over 20,000 school children across the country within the year.  

The free breakfast program responded to an immediate need: the severe food insecurity that Black families faced across the United States. But it went much deeper than this — in a 1972 interview, Panther leader Bobby Seale remarked: “There are 20 million people hungry in this, the most wealthiest country in the world. Why? Because we’ve been lied to, jived to, tricked and beat for 400 years.” The program framed hunger not as a self-contained issue, but as a symptom of something much larger. 

Black communities’ lack of access to food was rooted in the oppression these communities faced at the hands of the government, which meant that the free breakfast program was an inherently political project. 

And its growth threatened these structures of power — in 1969, President Hoover wrote in an internal FBI memo that the program “represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

Solidarity over charity

Over the years, the most effective community food initiatives have been rooted in this political praxis. Outside of the physical dimension of hunger, food nourishes us in many different ways — it is a connector, bringing communities together, and beyond this, it can be leveraged as a tool for building power.

Mutual aid organizing around food critically questions the food system itself. It asks: Who has access to food? Why? How is our food produced? Who is it produced by? 

These initiatives shed light on the failures of the systems that organize our lives, which makes it impossible for these organizing efforts to exist apolitically. 

The political quality of this work is the defining characteristic of Justicia’s weekly food box deliveries. It is what distinguishes these types of projects from other food initiatives, like food banks or food rescue programs, which often put a lot of effort into remaining politically “neutral.”

There is something fundamentally flawed about a food system where the people putting food on families’ tables across the country cannot feed themselves. At the core of this work is the recognition that this is not a mistake, but a function of the system’s design. Our food system was not built to serve poor and working peoples’ needs, but to profit off of their backs. 

A lack of access to food is directly linked to the structures of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. After deductions, workers often do not even receive a minimum wage, which means they often live in poverty. 

The government barely regulates conditions on the farms, which leads to deplorable working and living spaces for migrant workers. Their precarious status means they fear speaking out about these conditions, which has led to massive outbreaks of COVID-19 on farms. They live at the mercy of their employers, who, during the pandemic, have failed to provide them with appropriate food in quarantine.

Asking migrant workers to rely on handouts from food banks — that are often funded by the same government that forced them into this situation — simply will not work. 

Enter mutual aid. Mutual aid organizing embraces solidarity over charity, functioning outside of the power structures that oppress people. It’s about communities supporting each other; it’s about taking care of one another while we build a new set of structures. 

Mutual aid integrates a multi-pronged approach

Initiatives like Justicia’s food box deliveries are often framed as “charitable giving” or “helping the needy.” This representation is flawed.

We need to stop minimizing these mutual aid efforts, particularly those around food. Charity-model projects function to maintain the status quo — programs like food banks are a band-aid solution, dressing the superficial wound of hunger while allowing the whole system to continue rotting from the inside out. 

Mutual aid projects exist on the margins; they are complex and multifaceted. They care for the people made vulnerable by the current conditions, while simultaneously advocating for changes to dismantle the systems that produce that vulnerability in the first place. They push back. 

Food box drop-offs are accompanied by caravans raising public awareness around migrant worker rights, digital days of collective action, and ongoing legal advocacy. These food boxes serve as an entry point into a broader conversation about power — who has it and who does not; who profits from the vast wealth of the agricultural-industrial complex, and how do we develop resistance strategies?

Unlike the charity model, the underlying belief that drives these projects is that the status quo must be disrupted and dismantled. Within this context, feeding our communities becomes a revolutionary act. 

Re-thinking the meaning of ‘giving’

December is the time of year when people are inclined to “give” — to make donations, or volunteer their time. We see countless Letterman-style top 10 lists of organizations that are worthy of our support. 

Although the focus is often on registered charities and nonprofits, mutual aid initiatives end up getting some spotlight, too. Many of these are often food-centric, as the holidays tend to revolve around hot meals and warm drinks. 

We even have a specific day, “Giving Tuesday,” when corporations and politicians take to social media to encourage Canadians to donate to their favourite do-good projects. So it goes: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday. 

Embodying a late-capitalist fever dream, the notion of “giving back” to our own communities has been co-opted and corporatized. We are encouraged to spend our money on all three of these days — essentially equating taking care of our fellow folk with scoring a TV at half-price. It’s difficult to imagine anything less revolutionary than this.

This is not to say that “giving back” is a bad thing. Redistributing wealth, resources or food is an essential step toward building a new equitable life-world in which solidarity is embedded. 

However, we must collectively consider the kinds of projects we are supporting. We must question whether we are helping to maintain the status quo, or if there are better ways to “give back” that are more disruptive and radical.

Thinking about donating to a food bank? Although it is a necessary service in the right now, we might stop to critically reflect on how programs like these perpetuate the systems that keep people poor and hungry. 

For one, food companies that make donations of “edible food waste” to food charities receive federal tax credits. This means that these large corporate farms like NatureFresh get to force workers to endure unsafe conditions during a global pandemic, and are rewarded by the government for their so-called “charitable” behaviour. 

So instead, perhaps, think about supporting one of the many food justice projects already happening on the ground. Food is not a gift to be given — it is a human right. This is something that many food banks get wrong. 

People should be able to feed themselves, and do so with dignity. And I don’t mean this in the crude capitalist “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sense, but in a sense that implies that we must create conditions for food justice — for equitable access.

Finally, we must consider our own roles in taking care of one another. How do we understand this notion of “giving”? How can we do better in supporting community? Solidarity is not a once-a-year event. It is a constant process — an action word that means nothing unless it is ongoing. Mutual aid initiatives embody this — they exist long before December 1 comes around, and will continue to press on into the new year.

Jade Guthrie a food justice advocate, passionate about her work engaging communities through food. She sits on the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, and is a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, a volunteer-run political collective which strives to promote the rights of migrant farm workers.

Image: Joel Muniz​/Unsplash