a12 – Towards mutual aid during Covid-19

By droolz & spewz

• unknown

Mutual aid is a long tradition of reciprocity and camaraderieship, both materially and interpersonally. When people work together, identifying our needs and thinking of creative ways to fulfill them for one another, we break apart false ideas that we are separated from each other. By way of mutual aid, we grow roots for reconnection enriched by the soil–our visions of thriving communities–and readily plant seeds for the possibility of our collective future.
Since pandemic, several Bay Area mutual aid efforts have gone underway in response to compounded challenges. Some have also transformed to implement new safety precautions, but also because this time has given us a hard poke to examine systems that do not work (and never have). There’s a collective mourning, a collective reassessment of things; many of us (even gasp! those outside of political circles) have been given this moment to reflect upon our relationships–with ourselves, with each other, and to the current economic system we try to survive in.
For some, shifts in awareness around the pandemic are felt much differently. When I (droohlz) was doing a food drop-off at an encampment in Oakland, one of the residents said they didn’t even know there was a pandemic going on until one or two months after the shelter-in-place order began. However, can we think of a time in which such far-reaching interruption of everyday life has happened?
Despite the opportune moment for collectivity, there’s also been an increased risk to fall into hella apathetic headspaces, hopelessness, and despair, for those of us aware of how shit just seems to get worse even more so…especially as we struggle with isolation.
I see it as like, yeah, we’re extremely fucked right now in ways we haven’t been in the past. But since we’ve been put in this situation where we’ve been forced to rethink things, what possibilities are there for mutual aid in this moment and what do they hold for the future? By thinking in this realm, can we maybe hit pause of the normal flow of hopelessness and fear?
In terms of food security, many current mutual aid projects addressing these issues actually didn’t stem from the pandemic, since they have been deeply entrenched within communities for as long as they have existed. But some are choosing to see now that they have some degree of autonomy to gather people and resources together, and in doing so, expanding our networks to each other.
The food redistribution groups mentioned below are making a mockery of overconsumption and what is considered “work” (the the capitalist system) by recapturing food “waste” and in turn feeding people delicious, healthy food. They do this through a decentralized power model (with everyone participating as they can), helping build a different foundation of basic health for houseless communities. In return, new systems of care and love begin to form from within, and communities can begin to change.
…I (rachelle) grew up in Fremont, CA. The wealthy bedroom city full of townhouses and Silicon Valley types city treats houselessness like a big blister on its face, and does anything it can to brush unhoused folks under the proverbial rug. While there is a lack of allocated resources for the unhoused in Fremont, money is spent on cops and homeless sweeps in the name of development. Seeing my friends and a mutual aid organization rise to try and meet the (usually apolitical) town’s needs gave me an unbelievable hope for the future.

Renegade Feedings is a grassroots group which distributes food and supplies to unhoused people in Fremont, CA while working to connect them with greater resources outside of Renegade’s abilities. Since 2019, founders Paul Webster and Justin Valenzuela coordinate all the volunteers making shit happen.
P: “Instead of serving food at a fixed location, they go into encampments to pass out food and develop relationships with the people living there. We get to know these people and build deeper connections within our community. It’s hard to really help someone when you’re just passing out food and leaving…we try to listen to people and hear what they’re saying–to learn what they really need. With that, we connect them with resources and through those resources, they can get the help they want. Our usual situation is when we see someone on the street, we stop and ask if we can help out.”
Renegade visits two to four major encampments in Fremont regularly, but most of their distro is to less formal arrangements. They use 4-5 groups of volunteers to drive to specific areas in Fremont, and if they see someone (even just one person) camping out, they go up and ask if they need any resources and then take it from there. The food Renegade distributes varies, depending on where they source it from. During the pandemic, they’ve joined forces with another local mutual aid group called Meals to Heal.
J: “I saw Meals to Heal was on Nextdoor, so I reached out and asked if they wanted to collaborate on feedings during COVID. They were like, ’Bet.’ We’ve been doing that for a steady amount of time. They actually have stopped doing their own feeding program while trying to establish a community kitchen.”
Renegade also sources hot meals from local restaurants, and ready-to-eat (but close to expiration) foods from Tri City food banks. The meals are ready and prepackaged, and volunteers create kits with supplies and snacks.
When Renegade Feedings first started, it was just a thing to do with friends once a month. But later on, they realized that they could build a network in which everyone could be involved.
J: “It’s really all about community. We’re really asking: ‘How can we truly build a community where, if someone needs help, we can provide that help?’ We’re fighting this parasitic, individualistic, capitalistic society where we try to take-take-take and do everything ourselves. Everyone’s different, but we can all collaborate..and together we can make better decisions….

Food Not Bombs East Bay is an all volunteer-run organization established in 1991 which cooks anywhere from 60-100 hot meals six days a week, and serves at People’s Park. The Park feedings have sadly seen a decline in people showing up, so FNB recently started distributing the excess hot food out to Oakland encampments.
Silver Zahn works in multiple food justice organizations throughout the East Bay.
Silver: “When the pandemic hit, I had just started volunteering with EBFNB. Most of their volunteers are older folks who are immuno-compromised; luckily I’m very able bodied, so I needed to step in because these people couldn’t show up.”
In the kitchen, normally all are welcome, but now we have to deal with logistics of limiting the number of volunteers we can have working at one time. Problems have popped up, since a lot of people want to volunteer but can’t commit to a regular schedule…organizing random volunteers around a schedule has been messy. Right now, we want concrete people who can show up for specific times on specific days”.

Throughout the pandemic, FNB EB has also been doing their regular distribution of prepackaged foods to encampments throughout Oakland and Berkeley.
How this usually works is that volunteers pick up refrigerated packaged foods a few days from their posted expiration date from a national distributor in Oakland. The volunteers then load up their bike carts (or car) and ride around, looking for new and familiar faces to offer food to. Sometimes, water in reusable bottles is distributed, and when the pandemic started, they were even distributing donated hand sanitizer bottles from the students at UC Berkeley.

Food Not Bombs in Arcata, CA, been occurring for over 30 years now. The origins of the group are mysterious, seeing as it has been picked up and passed around by different community homes and groups over the years. It shape-shifts the way most things do in this town, due to its constant fluctuations of being a travelling hub.
At this time, the Bayside Community Hall is hosting us alongside Humboldt Mutual Aid efforts. They reached out to us when the pandemic hit, incidentally in perfect timing. The community house we were cooking out of had asked us to stop cooking there since they have an elder and a newborn living in their home. The transition was seamless and worked out fantastically.
Our operations have changed a lot since the days of bike carts and the huge plaza demonstrations that people associate with our chapter. We have had to switch to distributing food in compostable to-go containers, because before the pandemic we used communal dishes and a wash station at our servings. Using these containers has raised our expenses. Luckily, we were given a grant by a local organization to supplement our funds for the next year as we adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic.
There have been some struggles with conflicting opinions regarding the extent of safety protocols being put in place as food distributors between individuals and collectives in our area. We are adapting and growing through a shared motivation and interest for restoring food waste and being a presence advocating for non-violent direct actions.”

Our friend Silver also helps out with the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, which put together a distribution project in response to the pandemic. The reason the distro is on a three-week cycle is that the donations need to sit for two weeks to “quarantine.” As a collaboration with and for the community, they get specific donations from the community and make up to 500 “packages” with hot meals, hygiene products, groceries, batteries, tents, and other personal items on request that people need. They then spend all day driving around to encampments and delivering the kits.

Food Not Bombs volunteers rách and Dara mask up and prepare to distribute food to encampments in the Lower Bottoms, West Oakland, CA. Credit: ANKA

In the face of crumbling infrastructure and climate crisis, in addition to redistribution, it is more important now than ever to cut our dependence on the corporate food supply and be able to sustainably grow and provide our own communities with the healthy food we need. Urban farms and guerilla gardens are making this possible within our cities.
Leah Van Winkle told us that at the Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany, CA, the Gill Tract Farm Coalition has been working toward food/land access and food sovereignty in the East Bay for nearly a decade. With several partnering groups, including Sogorea Te Land Trust, Black Earth Farms, and the Gill Tract Herb Collective, they’ve been growing food and herbs and distributing them for free to the community from the all-volunteer run farm.
Leah: “When COVID hit, our work continued and new opportunities to feed the community came our way. Working with local organization Fresh Approach, we’ve received some funding from the USDA Farmers to Families Foodbox program to source local, organic produce from farmers around the greater Bay Area. We are primarily working with Latinx farmers in Salinas, CA, who have lost virtually all other markets for their produce. We then pack 1000 CSA-style produce boxes each week, that we are then able to freely distribute to the local community!”
With 10+ distribution partners, they are reaching folks all over the Bay – primarily those of marginalized identity living under the poverty level. They’ve heard countless testimonies that these boxes are providing the cleanest, freshest food a lot of these families have ever had access to, greatly furthering the mission of food access for all!

As you have read, groups have still been figuring out how to support the most impacted communities differently from a charity model, making moves towards mutual aid. While they are autonomously organized and for the most part not funded by anyone in particular (in fact, pretty much every week are scrambling for resources), true mutual aid requires both parties to collaborate and exchange. Members of these groups share a common vision for a liberated future, one in which they don’t have to exist because everyone is able to meet each other’s needs in community. However, it is yet to be stated how the recipients of the aid are in turn participating in some kind of reciprocal process with the volunteers, materially and politically. This is definitely a way in which mutual-aid-intending groups need to grapple with their approach in a way that is revolutionary and dismantling these systems that choke us, leaving us on ontologically separate ends.
If you’ve ever done food distribution, you’ll see how much work it is, how frustrating it can be because it’s never enough, but it can still be a break from the everyday monotonous way of accepting the conditions we live in. You’re agreeing that shit is fucked up and the worst thing to be is immobile. As both of us continue to work in food distribution, we are also looking for ways to actually build relationships across communities, to get to work on bringing some shit down. As we thwart attempts at mass pacification by getting up to do something, what is actually our purpose and how are we getting there?
Because true mutual aid allows for us to envision what we will grow, and practice doing it, building upon intra-communal resilience…once we have prepared the soil.

Do you see a need? Maybe you should try to fulfill it! Consider plugging into already forming groups, rely on the communities for networks, or start a group yourself to make safe and healthy food accessible in your area.
Please feel free to email Slingshot and give us updates about what cool stuff you are doing in your town 🙂