From 2020 to 2022, the Southern Foodways Alliance documented the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on people who work in and around the food and beverage industry. The COVID-19 Oral History Project includes servers, cooks, restaurateurs, food photographers, food bank managers, farmers, and grassroots mutual aid volunteers who shared their experiences navigating the challenges of COVID-19 Pandemic.

As the Pandemic took hold, many restaurant owners pivoted. They restructured their business models to take-out only enterprises. Eventually, many restaurateurs equipped their restaurants to safely accommodate diners. Some added outdoor seating while others opted to serve take out only meals. Servers, cooks, and other restaurant staff faced unemployment and the specter of returning to a public-facing work environment before a vaccine was widely available.  Those who returned to work, navigated a challenging (and dangerous) work landscape. “It was definitely hard in the beginning, related server Molly Taylor. “You get used to it, it’s weird how adaptable we are and how things just become second nature, I guess.” Bywater American Bistro, the New Orleans-based restaurant she worked in, added outdoor seating and social distancing protocols to safely serve diners.

The instability of the pandemic caused a proliferation of food insecurity. Food Banks faced unprecedented volume, serving a much larger group of people than usual. Farmers Market managers provided new socially distanced spaces, attempted to navigate a safe opening for their markets, and helped vendors who were economically hit by the Pandemic. Georgia Farmer’s Market who partnered with Wholesome Wave Georgia doubled SNAP benefits, adding an extra layer of protection for the food insecure. Susan Desmond related, “What Wholesome Wave Georgia does at the end of the day is food and food security. And SNAP benefits are one of the most stable programs for those that are food insecure,” Susan went on to say, “It’s never easy, but there’s just been more interest and opportunity around food security.”

Responding to both the Pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, in 2020 local grassroots organizations sprang up. Mutual aid organizations popped up throughout the region and served community members in need. In New Orleans, the Krewe of Red Beans began Feed the Frontline to feed essential workers and employ out-of-work food service industry professionals. “You can just make a really good meal and bill it to us.” You know? “If it’s $15 a plate, that’s fine. If it’s $12 a plate, whatever. If it’s $8, that’s great,” said Devin DeWulf. “It doesn’t matter to me because we want the best possible food for our healthcare workers right now because they need to feel the love.”

Unable to connect in person, interviewers conducted interviews on Zoom or Zencastr. Virtual interviews opened possibilities for oral historians whose projects are sometimes limited by both geography and time. In the virtual space, interviewers were able to talk to anyone, regardless of their location. Narrators were interviewed twice: once in the early days of the Pandemic and again, six to twelve months after their first interview. Many narrators reflect on resilience and community building in the midst of illness and loss and economic uncertainty. Listen to the narrators as they describe their experiences navigating work and life during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Southern Foodways Alliance thanks Ellen Brooks, Diana Dombrowski, Rien Fertel, Justin Nystrom, and Jessica Taylor for their work as interviewers on this oral history project. We also thank Wholesome Wave Georgia for their partnership in interviewing farmers and farm managers in Georgia.

TAGS: agriculture, community, COVID-19 Pandemic, Economics, farmer, Food, Food Insecurity, grocery stores, Illness, labor, market, Mutual Aid, restaurants, restaurateur, servers, SNAP benefits, waiters