Op Ed: Why Food is a Radical Force

We’re living in a time with precious little joy. Millions have lost their jobs, forcing them to rely on unattainable and unsustainable government benefits; students have been sent home from school, turning parents into teachers or students into workers as a result; everyone has been cut off from friends and family, creating an epidemic of loneliness on top of the virus that lurks in our midst. Throughout the pandemic, media outlets have published stories ranging from the psychology behind social isolation to advice on the two things you should do to get through each isolated day. Everyone is attempting to cope in a hopeless time, wracked with protests against police brutality and presidential elections and a global pandemic. 

I’ve been spending far too much time cooking. I read stories about salt packed new potatoes and cured egg yolks. I eat pancakes for dinner and ramen for breakfast. I chop vegetables into small, perfect, cubes to restore order to my chaotic life and throw bundles of spices and vegetables into a pot to simmer into a stock to attempt to bring my frayed ends together. Cooking has been my saving grace in a time when I so often feel hopeless.

This article was originally going to be about mutual aid more generally, about the way it looks across the US, ranging from grocery store delivery to funding for medical needs to simply taking turns checking in on an elderly neighbor. In our current world where governmental support runs thin, people have turned to each other for support. 

This article is still going to be about mutual aid, but I realized as I wrote that the process of mutual aid is in and of itself a deeply personal process. In their comprehensive guide about mutual aid, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organizer Mariame Kaba explain that mutual aid “means we recognize that our well-being, health and dignity are all bound up in each other.” It means that we inherently must understand our own needs and see how those needs are tied to those who surround us. It means that mutual aid at Bard College is going to look different than it does in Kingston, NY, and that mutual aid in Kingston, NY is going to look different in Midtown than it does in Uptown. What matters in mutual aid is that you are recognizing the needs of yourself and your community and noticing that way that those interact. What matters is that you are standing in solidarity with your neighbors, because you understand that that solidarity is best for all concerned. Mutual aid groups are quick to distinguish between this solidarity and charity, because charity is one sided and solidarity in the form of mutual aid is not. 

So why talk about cooking? 

For me, cooking during this pandemic has been a fundamental way that I have connected with my community. I work as a cook at a local pizza place and my work there brought me closer not only to my coworkers, but also to those that we served. We used to do a huge amount of walk-in business in addition to running a delivery kitchen, an aspect of my work that the pandemic changed. The quantity of walk-in traffic greatly reduced but the quality greatly improved. Instead of having short encounters, we were far more likely to have long conversations with the people who came in. There was a recognition on both ends that those conversations with others mattered. Our company deepened these connections by forming meaningful and new relationships with the community that previously did not exist. Twice a week we would do “community giveaways,” distributing products from other local restaurants that were forced to close during the pandemic and strengthening the relationships between the restaurant industry in a way that had not existed before. 

I also used my own, personal cooking to connect with my neighborhood. Neighbors shared raspberries and plums from their gardens, raspberries and plums that I would then bake into a pie or a cobbler. We would walk slices of the pie back to the neighbors, completing the circle of food sharing. Food acted as a connecting factor for us, allowing our community to share parts of themselves with each other, allowing us to mutually aid each other’s bodies and souls.

Food and the access to food has also acted as a radicalizing force for many. Katy Kondrat, the director of the Kingston Food Coop explained that she used to run to Kingston Farmers Market but “couldn’t really afford to shop at the farmers market.” She said that this experience in addition to her previous work in sustainable agriculture helped her “to really understand the need for reliable year-round and broad-reaching markets for produce.” For food to be able to connect and nourish people, everyone needs “to be able to access food year round [that is] grown locally, and also that is affordable.”

With food security an increasing problem during the pandemic, sharing our food with others is one of the best ways we can address this problem and connect with people. Many people have been converting their “Little Free Libraries” into “Little Free Pantries,” that people can give to and take from as needed. The newest iteration of those little pantries has been the community fridge, a phenomena that has been created in response to the increased need for food security and food access during these times. Katy is also one of the coordinators of the two community fridges that were created in Kingston, NY this month and she explained that the fridges are a “project of mutual aid.”

Each of the fridges are “independently operated and community based,” and works to serve the “micro community” within which it is located. Katy explained that the process of opening the 14 Van Buren fridge involved discussions with community leaders and moments where people remembered that “My dad has a fridge he needs to get rid of.” When they ultimately made the “charge forward,” they attempted to get the community involved as much as possible. The 14 Van Buren fridge is hosted by Greg McCollough, the director of the non-profit “Beyond the 4 Walls” but is stocked and used by the community. Prior to its opening, Katy and other organizers created a GoFundMe which raised $4000 in a week, and posted across social media platforms to inform community members of the fridge opening. The goal was to have a fridge that fit into the concept of mutual aid by allowing community members to stock the fridge and allowing community members to take from the fridge. 

“People can be both givers and receivers, which I think is really different from looking at the service industry of food relief. Because often in pantries and soup kitchens and that kind of thing, there’s some people who are always the receivers and some people who are always the givers, kind of like the haves and the have nots, and this model is obviously a much smaller scale but is kind of  turning that on its head, which I like about it.”

The difference between the fridges and a food pantry or a soup kitchen, is that with a community fridge, you aren’t required to prove need. Katy and others believe that this “offers people more dignity around getting free food,” and also allows people who may not be able to “prove” need the opportunity to get free food as well. It also gives people a concrete way to contribute to their community. “Even if you just have some things in your pantry that you wanna offer or things from your garden or that kind of thing, it gives a concrete way to really offer up something that’s like a direct service to your neighbors,” Katy explains. By allowing anyone to take from the fridge and anyone to contribute to the fridge, the community fridge acts as an “equalizer” and a “connector” across the community.

And the refrigerators have been doing that very thing. Katy told me that there is constant and rapid turnover in the fridges, indicating that people are not only taking food from the fridge, but are putting food back into it. It indicates that neighbors are supporting neighbors in the very way that mutual aid is supposed to work. It indicates that instead of only supporting those we are close with, the community fridges are giving people the tools to support everyone in their community. 

The two fridges at 14 Van Buren and 122 Clinton Ave are the first step in what will hopefully be a longer process in Kingston and across the country of providing and creating mutual aid. Katy hopes that future fridges will open to serve the many communities in Kingston, and that those fridges can be open 24/7 to provide food at all hours. 

In the same way that food brought me closer to my neighborhood and my community, community fridges use food to bring together other communities. The hope is that this pandemic will be nearing its end by the middle of next year, but many organizers of mutual aid movements hope that the act of mutual aid will continue. The goal of mutual aid is not to exist only in a time of crisis, but to exist at all times, so that they can be stable and strong when the next crisis arises.
You can contribute to either of the fridges by bringing unopened and unexpired food or fresh vegetables to either location. If you’re a Bard student and want to get involved even more locally, you can check out Red Hook Responds, who are working to get food to those in need in the Red Hook community. 

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