Solidarity, Not Charity in the Crescent City

Politics, Power, and Food Distribution during COVID-19

by Sarah Fouts and Fernando López

At Familias Unidas en Acción’s food distribution center in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, hundreds of bags of donated white beans sat in a corner. A core ingredient in Louisiana cooking, especially when stewed with andouille, they’re foreign to recent Central American migrants. The Familias Unidas crew adjusted, procuring black beans for Guatemalan families to make frijoles volteados and red beans for Hondurans to prepare their baleadas. They gave the white beans to another mutual aid organization.

Adjustments like these humanize the aid process. When soliciting donations and purchasing foods, members of Familias Unidas prioritize the cultural and dietary preferences of the Central American and Mexican communities they serve. “We want to make sure the food we are delivering is familiar to people, and dignifying,” says Maria Amaya, one of the group’s core leaders.

“We want to make sure the food we are delivering is familiar to people, and dignifying.” – Maria Amaya

Since COVID-19, Familias Unidas has pivoted to become a food distribution center supporting thousands of undocumented New Orleanians, many of whom have lost jobs in the service sector and are left out of pandemic response efforts. In the fifteen years since Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of Central Americans and Mexicans have settled in New Orleans after initially arriving to help clean up and rebuild the region.

Food distribution and mutual aid groups abound during the global pandemic. Resourcefulness is rightfully celebrated, yet the solidarity of this process gets overlooked or conflated with actions of charity. Because food is often the most immediate need for individuals in crisis, it becomes an entry point for social movements; a way for people to help others while helping themselves. Mutual aid is empowering, participatory, and bottom-up—a seed that grows.

“Solidarity, not charity” is Familias Unidas’ mantra. As Maria says, it means dignifying not only the foods and goods distributed, but also the process of distribution. The mantra can be explicitly and implicitly political, a form of resistance in the shadows of state failures. It is also multiracial, galvanized by collective action, and built on a historical tradition of free food programs.

A deconstructed food box containing: 1 gallon of milk, homemade cheese, 1 thermometer, can of tuna, baby wipes, diapers, 2lbs of sugar, 3lbs of red beans, 4 lbs of Maseca, 3lbs of rice, sausage, 1 corn cob, 5lbs of potatoes, 2lbs of okra, 2 lbs of carrots, 1 pack of spaghetti, 5lbs bag of oranges and apples, 1/2 gallon bottle of cooking oil, bag of mixed veggies, a small squash, 5lbs bag of sweet potatoes, small can of tomato paste, 2 lbs container of salt, coloring markers, vegetable seeds, and soil.

THE SOLIDARITY, NOT CHARITY organizing philosophy stems from Common Ground, a New Orleans–based organization established after Hurricane Katrina to meet people’s most elemental needs: food and water. Common Ground expanded from basic needs support to offering more holistic services like housing, healthcare, legal aid, and education.

The historical origins of these survival programs go even farther back. Common Ground founder Malik Rahim was a member of the New Orleans Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), established in 1970. BPP sponsored the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, an initiative that began in Oakland, California, and spread to BPP chapters nationwide. In New Orleans, the program fed over four hundred children each morning. Malik explains that for many children, it was their “first taste of political education.”

Familias Unidas founders, Leticia Casildo and Mario Mendoza stand among hundreds of food boxes ready for distribution.

Alfred Marshall, a community organizer who participated in the program when he was twelve, agrees. “While you ate, they told you the importance of school and self and our place in history. We were taught we are stronger together.” Marshall ate eggs, grits, and milk each morning with the BPP before attending junior high near the Calliope Project where he lived. “There wasn’t much sweets. They were about healthy eating,” he recalls.

The Black Panther Party developed and implemented more than sixty types of survival programs to build power while meeting community needs. But as the FBI implemented covert operations to infiltrate leftist organizations, New Orleans’ Free Breakfast Program became a target. Early on Thanksgiving morning in 1970, undercover New Orleans police officers donned cassocks to imitate the Jesuit priests who had volunteered with the program. Armed with shotguns, they raided BPP’s main headquarters in the Desire Housing Project. Betty Powell Toussaint, who worked in the Free Breakfast Program, was hit in the arm by buckshot. She was arrested on six charges of attempted murder and a violation of the Federal Firearms Act. Toussaint spent nearly a year in jail before she went to trial and was acquitted. The New Orleans–based Free Breakfast Program ended soon after Toussaint’s arrest.

“While you ate, they told you the importance of school and self and our place in history.”

As the BPP Free Breakfast Program fed the urban poor, it shed light on the shortcomings of the federal School Breakfast Program established in 1966 under the Child Nutrition Act. Eventually, the BPP’s efforts influenced government reforms. Federal funding for breakfast in schools expanded in 1971 to better reach poor families, and again in 1975.

Over sixty years later, the parallels between BPP and Familias Unidas are clear. Once again, people of color have created grassroots structures that support those marginalized by the state, while concomitantly making demands of the state. Solidarity, not charity is a long-term strategy that relies on collective action and struggle.

Hundreds of food boxes ready for distribution and other bulk foods cover the entirety of the Jazz Market’s main events theater.

FAMILIAS UNIDAS FIRST FORMED in 2018 as a safety net for recently arrived migrants and asylum seekers. They provided housing, food, and skill training and focused their efforts on Central American Black and Indigenous people recently released from one of Louisiana’s thirteen immigration detention centers.

Since March 2020, a cadre of volunteers and members from Familias Unidas have collected supplies, packaged goods, and delivered food to over 600 mostly undocumented and asylum-seeking families. These supplies feed an estimated 3,400 New Orleanians. Familias Unidas operates out of the Jazz Market, a single-story brick building that once housed the historic Dryades Market, a public food market established in 1849. The Black-owned and -operated building is now a performing-arts venue and events space. As the Jazz Market sits quiet due to COVID-19 restrictions, members and volunteers for Familias Unidas have occupied the main theater as their temporary headquarters. Sharing of space is yet another form of solidarity.

Communities of color, including Latinx immigrants, suffer disproportionately in the COVID-19 pandemic. Central American and Mexican residents in New Orleans experience much higher infection rates than the rest of the population. In May 2020, over twenty percent of Latinx residents tested positive for COVID-19, compared to just three percent of the non-Latinx population in the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Undocumented individuals have lost jobs due to the downturn in tourism. Those who are able to find employment are forced into essential work with little protections, laboring in construction, restaurants, cleaning services, agriculture, and meat processing plants across the South. Essential work exposes these individuals to COVID-19; crowded housing can spread the virus. Limited healthcare access due to language barriers and documentation status, coupled with fears of deportation, can mean that sick individuals are less likely to seek care when they need it.

As a result, undocumented people turn inward to address their own needs, including food access. And they also look for external opportunities to build multiracial solidarity across different communities.

Familias Unidas core leader, Maria, coordinates supplies in between the assorting of the boxes, Maria is an essential worker who is constantly balancing her time to be able to work for a living, take care of her family, and volunteer with Familias Unidas.

BACK IN MARCH, a member of Familias Unidas went to a grocery store in the Holly Grove neighborhood to buy cooking oil for families in need. He settled on an affordable brand and filled a shopping cart with half-gallon jugs. At checkout, the cashier reprimanded him for buying in bulk. When he explained that the bulk products were for free food distribution and not for personal consumption, the cashier suggested he talk with the store manager.

The manager, a Black middle-aged woman, asked candidly about Familias Unidas, prompting a brief dialogue about undocumented communities left out of aid relief. Without much hesitation, the store manager cut a deal that would save Familias Unidas thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, individuals are willing to offer solutions that institutions cannot or do not. By building knowledge and power, these seemingly small actions can lead to meaningful changes.

Without much hesitation, the store manager cut a deal that would save Familias Unidas thousands of dollars.

The work of Familias Unidas is not singular. Thousands of food-based mutual aid organizations have emerged during this pandemic. But highlighting the work of Familias Unidas shows how a group of undocumented individuals, some with little English proficiency, can reshape the realities of thousands of people by offering solidarity, not charity. It begins with dignity. And a full belly.

Sarah Fouts (@sbfouts) is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is writing a book on food, transnationalism, and labor in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Fernando López is a New Orleans-based documentarian and organizer with Familias Unidas En Acción. @fotografi.ando

Photos by Fernando López

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