Mutual Aid Organizing Puts Solidarity Over Charity

Image: Joel Muniz​/UnsplashJade Guthrie

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.



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