From Mutual Aid to Food Justice

Jonathan Ellis

Providing relief to food insecurity is going to take more than mutual aid and community gardens.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the shutting down of various industries, food insecurity has intensified. Donations from supermarkets and farms to food banks have dropped since the start of the crisis, just as there has been an increase in demand as millions have lost their jobs. Dealing with this insecurity will require both mutual aid projects and also fighting for the drastic expansion of food assistance and subsidy.

Acts of solidarity around the country have cut through the doom and gloom, as people have worked to provide food for their neighbors, volunteered to go grocery shopping, and held community giveaways. Left-wing activists have also participated in these projects and have started their own mutual aid networks. 

There have also been calls from groups like the Cooperative Gardens Commission for Americans “to share resources and get millions of people to grow food for themselves and their communities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The commission has called on millions of volunteers to become a part of this movement in order to stop food insecurity during this pandemic.

An alternative to industrial food systems is urgently necessary. In this moment of overwhelming hunger, tons of food is going to waste because farmers can’t expect companies that service colleges, restaurants, and schools to make good on purchases. 

The Anarkata statement, put together by a number of Black anarchists, states that “Anarkatas see Black mutual aid as directly undermining the state’s social welfare programs which have always severely underserved Black people, kept us in poverty, and fostered material dependence on the very State which exploits us.” But this contraposition between the welfare state and our own mutual aid efforts isn’t helpful. It is hard to imagine that we could undermine federal welfare programs that are funded by taxes with the meager resources we have. Despite far-right attacks and liberal complicity in the defunding and gutting of the welfare system, millions still depend upon them. 

Over 36 million Americans depend upon Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, colloquially known as “food stamps”). Millions of Americans also depend upon food banks, local charities, and religious organizations for food and nutrition. With low wages, little to no savings, not enough full-time work, and food deserts, millions of Americans are food insecure or on the verge of one disaster that can push one into food insecurity. One such disaster has arrived.

One such disaster has arrived.

State inactivity or insufficiency around the question of food provided an opening for left-wing activists to pick up the slack. The Cooperative Gardens Commission’s project of providing communities with fresh food and reducing reliance on industrial food systems relies on the voluntarism of activists and community gardeners. But a strategy that depends on free labor has its limits. It is also crucial that we recognize the limitations of voluntaristic programs that rely on the time, money, and oftentimes free labor of working-class folk. The bulk of the burden should be placed upon the rich and our government for the provision of adequate nutrition. 

The SNAP program, which has been under threat of significant cuts, needs to be expanded, and now is the time to do it. In the same way many are arguing for a universal basic income, a universal SNAP could be something to advocate for. We should challenge both state and federal authorities to increase provisions for SNAP while providing higher and repeated stimulus payments that are universal. 

Millions of Americans who need food assistance have incomes that are higher than the threshold for eligibility for the SNAP program. Regardless of people not qualifying, their need remains. The standard should be simply: if you live here in this country you should not go hungry. There’s no reason that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be entitled to the program either. We need more than survival. Millions of people are already surviving with meager government help and assistance from friends and familial networks. We need to ensure that all residents of this country do not have to worry about going hungry.

If you live here in this country you should not go hungry.

The left needs to be more involved in these fights and proposing narratives that advocate for food being a human right not necessitated by ability to work or citizenship. Narratives around who is deserving and who is not are designed to justify cuts. Now is the time to massively expand food assistance. The USDA says that “We have sufficient quantities to not only feed our country but maintain robust exports even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Even if food supplies are safe for the time being, the loss of jobs and the tightened budgets of households will make affordability an issue.  Deep contradictions of capitalism have been exposed by this multilayered crisis. The left should continue building and expanding upon mutual aid projects but these projects have to be connected to a larger struggle that demands more from the government. We can simultaneously self-organize and challenge the state on meeting its responsibilities. Food justice must also take on low wages, the exploitation of agricultural workers, and policies that make factory farming and corporate monopolies the dominant way we receive our nutrition.

Jonathan Ellis is an Atlanta-based socialist activist who is passionate about food justice, Black liberation, and internationalism.