Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
“I don’t know Mommy, I just find it weird that I have to go all the way to Trader Joe’s in Downtown Brooklyn to find food for the house just because the grocery store by our house wants to sell us rotten fruits and sell milk for eight plus dollars.”
As I voiced my concerns to my mother, I already knew the answer to why healthy food was so easily accessible in affluent communities, where the only time people that looked like me surrounded them was if they worked there. The arrival of the pandemic not only revealed but intensified food inequality in black communities throughout America. Sadly, my community of Crown Heights was among the first to be hit. Food insecurity was already a significant problem before the pandemic, which only worsened upon its arrival. Not only was the pandemic disproportionately already affecting Black New Yorkers, but with food programs widely closed across the city, including 58% of the ones in my area, hunger and lack of healthy food access threatened to aid in the demise of my community mentally, physically, and spiritually. Yet the city’s response fell drastically short. It would be members of my own community who would step up.
In my community of Crown Heights, food inequality, price gouging and newly-enforced policies at my local grocery store left a cloud of sadness over my neighborhood. The price of milk that usually sold at a flat rate of 3.25 was raised to over six, seven, eight dollars. My local grocery store implemented a no -return policy despite selling items that were rotten and well passed the expiration date. Things were so bad that I only was able to shop at Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn Heights who was still serving fresh fruit and vegetables and whose only adjustment to their return policy was not being able to return overbought items. Seeing the drastic difference in healthy food access in Brooklyn Heights comparable to my neighborhood of Crown Heights ultimately led me to question if my neighborhood was deemed unworthy of receiving the basic human right of healthy food access in the middle of a pandemic.
Amid price gouging, lack of healthy food access and the closing of majority of food pantries in Brooklyn, my neighborhood was still left unprioritized by the city. As Gothamist reports: “Out of the 257 food pantries and kitchens in the borough [of Brooklyn], 93 were closed and a vast majority of those served communities with large meal gaps, according to the report.”
This cloud of sadness only began to lift due to community organizers taking the brunt of the city’s lack of responsibility for black lives to ensure their neighbors were fed and cared for. Instead of having an individualistic mindset, unification quickly spread throughout my community. Being one of the few soup kitchens choosing to remain open with enhanced safety precautions to limit the risk of contracting COVID19, Calvary AME Church, whose members consisted of mainly older Black women and children, immediately expanded their already-established soup kitchen initiative. I witnessed volunteers of the church diligently waking up at 6a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to prepare hot meals, some of the volunteers balancing working from home yet still trying to help their fellow brothers and sisters. Noting the lack of healthy food access and deepening food inequality, members of the church alongside Radical Living, an organization whose slogan is “We believe that gardening has the potential to be revolutionary on a personal, communal and global scale”, utilized the church garden by planting herbs, vegetables, fruits and beans. This fresh produce was not only given away to local residents but also utilized in meal preps for the community. Due to the spread of the virus, sit-down dinners at the local church were replaced with packaged dinners. Every Tuesday between the hours of 12pm – 2pm, community members were able to take home up to five containers of home-cooked food for them and their loved ones. Seeing an increase of children within the community collecting meals, up to 200 meals per week were served. Lines quickly spreading from the entrance of the church to the end of the local residential block. It seemed as if the entire community was in need of food. Despite the increasing demand for food within the community, funding from the city was not granted to Calvary. Instead, they received a small grant from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Inc. The lack of response from the city allowed residents to truly see who their saviors were amidst the crisis.
Speaking to Denise Haggins, a representative of Calvary Fellowship AME Church, she explained that since the arrival of the pandemic the small neighborhood where Calvary is located has been very appreciative and supportive of their initiative with love being very present within the community. The women and children of Calvary were quickly recognized as angels of the community, whose work limited the spread of hunger that was taking the community by storm.
Similar to Crown Heights, lack of access to food escalated in Bedford Stuyvesant. The Campaign against Hunger, known as TCHA throughout Brooklyn, is based front and center in Bedford- Stuyvesant. This food pantry, along with their community garden, have been a major staple to the community since its arrival in 1998, providing residents with not only healthy food access but social services, including SNAP registration, health insurance enrollment, tax filing preparation, and much more. Unlike most food pantries who provide residents with a set bag of goods, TCHA uses a more holistic, “choice- based approach” setup similar to a grocery store. Residents are able to go into the pantry and select their own items. This approach not only limits their waste but also allows residents to choose food based on their need, culture, or religious dietary restrictions. Due to social distancing guidelines, the “grocery store approach” is no longer used but was replaced with a curbside distribution with enhanced safety precautions. This allows residents to receive meals and prepackaged bags of food that accommodate their dietary regulations. Despite this minor set-back, they were still able to provide over six million meals to the residents of Brooklyn upon the arrival of the pandemic. Sadly, they were still faced with many ongoing challenges. Speaking to TCHA’s Racquel Grant, she drew a vivid picture of their challenges along with their success: “Food inequality has been entrenched into the communities we serve and has only worsened amidst the arrival of the pandemic, and the conversation on food inequality has begun if anything COVID19 amplified what was already happening.” Due to their advocacy and mobilization through their website, ads throughout the community and spread of vocalized support, TCHA received an increase in private donations and unsolicited grants, and were featured on CNN, Spectrum, and News1. They were gifted a temporary 20,000-square-foot warehouse space in Canarsie, a huge increase from their 2000 square foot food pantry, allowing them to increase their food storage.
Although not receiving immediate aid from the city, the city did eventually supply funding to their initiatives and newly founded partnerships were started with ACS and NYCHA. Elected city officials provided funding to support their initiatives during the arrival of the pandemic. Despite the outpouring of support at the arrival of the pandemic, support from the city and private sectors are slowly coming to a halt, due to declining rate of COVID19 cases and reopening of the city. Racquel Grant stresses that the declining cases does not mean efforts should decline. She states that “They are still without a permanent warehouse and are currently looking for a permanent space. The need is still there and has not disappeared. Due to individuals remaining unemployed and extra benefits packaging ending this month families will still be in need.”
Denise Higgins from Calvary also shared similar concerns to TCHA’s Racquel Grant stating that “I suspect food inequality is going to be worse even as they open up. Not everyone is going to be able to go back to work and people are going to get sick.” These concerns are not only shared by organizers of these community-based organizations but also by community residents.
Despite a large percentage of food pantries in communities with large meal gaps shutting down amidst the height of the pandemic, funding from the city was still delayed for community-based organizations who chose to remain open. This delay reflects the lack of urgency the city has pertaining to the wellbeing of black communities. A global pandemic was not the only thing that I was forced to face during the spring and summer months of 2020. It was seeing young black children and the women, men, and elderly of my community step up when the city did not—and risk their lives and health amidst a pandemic to ensure the wellbeing of other black residents due to food inequality that plagued my community way before COVID19 and only deepened amidst its arrival.