The People’s Free Food Project

2020-06-23T12:22:41-04:00June 19, 2020|

Black and brown Chicagoans are making sure everybody eats—while holding space for revolution and joy

By Justin Agrelo, Alexandra Arriaga and Sarah Conway, City Bureau

This story was originally published by City Bureau on June 17, 2020

Cultivating a Spirit of Joy 

On a sunny Monday morning in early June, early-2000s music drowns out the bustling traffic on South King Drive as a young woman dances in the bike lane. She waves a sign that reads “Free Food” on one side and “Defund The Police” on the other.

It’s the People’s Grab-N-Go at Burke Elementary School in Bronzeville, a Black-led, volunteer-run food distribution pop-up helping to feed mostly Black residents from nearby communities. Friends Dominique James and Trina Reynolds-Tyler started the pop-up immediately after learning that Chicago Public Schools would temporarily suspend their food distribution sites, which many families depend upon. CPS’s decision came after city-wide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, a move the women viewed as a direct slight to their communities.

“People are organizing and [CPS] is gonna punish young people at the expense of the organizing, and try to project that burden and responsibility on to the people fighting for change,” James says. “That pissed me off a little bit, so we were like, we need to feed people.”

She contacted Reynolds-Tyler, who had more experience in mutual aid projects, and rushed to Costco for supplies. The women partnered with other Black organizers, asked their networks for donations, made fliers and used social media to spread the word. The next day, the volunteers were in front of Burke with tables of food. Now they’re handing out grocery bags full of fresh produce, rice, bread, water and toilet paper once a week.

“This particular collective of folks are from the Washington Park-Bronzeville area,” Reynolds-Tyler says, who also lives in the area. “We believe that mutual aid efforts in neighborhoods should be led by people who are from those neighborhoods.”

James adds, “There’s a different power dynamic when someone who looks like you and talks like you is giving you things … It feels more like an exchange than an act of charity.”

DJ Ca$h Era, a friend of the organizers, provides the day’s soundtrack and helps minimize the stigma, transforming what could easily feel like charity into more of a block party.

“We want people to feel welcome, to feel like this is really a family reunion, like this is a barbecue,” says Reynolds-Tyler. “They have a right to everything that we are offering and they should feel no shame. They should dance and have fun and meet each other in the process.”

The People’s Grab-N-Go is held every Monday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until August 31. You can donate via Cash App to $dominiquejames1, Venmo to @trinartyler or via PayPal to dominiquejames1@me.com or drop off non-perishable groceries, juice, water, fruit, baby food, sanitary pads, diapers and PPE at Burke Elementary School, 5356 S. King Drive. 


Back of the Yards Builds Bridges 

In the parking lot of a boarded-up Walgreens in Back of the Yards, Julia Ramirez is helping unload a U-Haul truck filled with food. Ramirez is a volunteer with Increase The Peace, a youth-led anti-violence organization that today is occupying the intersection of Ashland Avenue and 47th Street with hopes of bridging the worlds that exist on each side of it.

“If you don’t know Back of the Yards, we deal with several gangs… There’s a lot of different boundaries, specifically right here on 47th and Ashland,” she says, explaining that north and west of the corner it’s mostly Latinx communities, while south and east of the corner are Black areas. “When a lot of the looting was happening, there was a lot of tension,” she adds.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to raise the bridges over the Chicago River and implement a city-wide curfew helped fan the flames of racial tension on the city’s South Side, according to Ramirez. “Since everybody was filled with rage,” Ramirez says, “we were taking it out on each other because we weren’t allowed to go downtown anymore.”

Once the demonstrations moved from the Loop into communities of color, Latinxs in Little Village, Pilsen, and Back of the Yards began racially profiling Black residents as automatic “looters,” threatening them with violence and the police. The incidents of racial violence inspired a flood of Black and brown solidarity events throughout the South Side, including Increase the Peace’s Black and Brown Unity Food Pantry.

“What we’re really trying to do is just be visible to the whole community on this specific intersection and then try to bring the people together through food,” Ramirez says. “Food is so important right now because people are not working. We’re not just feeding people with actual food, but we’re feeding the soul.”

Back of the Yards is a microcosm of the Black and brown tension in a hyper-segregated city like Chicago. Despite the close proximity of the two communities within this neighborhood, Ramirez says it’s still very much segregated along racial lines. “We just don’t deal with each other,” she says.

Still Ramirez believes relationships will be born from the turmoil. She’s hopeful the recent spike in unity initiatives can help spark change within Chicago’s Black and brown communities to become more inclusive of one another.

“This is going to push even a lot of the activists to say, ‘Look, there’s too many brown people in the room,’” Ramirez says. “Mayor Lightfoot giving us that curfew, and taking down the CTA, she’s kind of pushing us together to deal with one another when we don’t necessarily do that. Now we have to. We have no other place to turn.”


In Memory of Artist John Walt

On a Saturday afternoon, Nachelle Pugh, is busy coordinating volunteers while kids play with bubbles and adults stand in line. Her aunt and uncle Gertrude Pugh and Samuel Pugh Jr. sit under the protective shade of a sturdy Basswood tree, and joke while their baby great nephew rests on a knee. Members of the rap group Pivot Gang are directing attendees in line and making sure people get what they need.

This is John Walt’s family, and this food distribution was created by the John Walt Foundation, founded in 2017 after the influential producer, rapper and convener was killed. According to those closest to him, Walter Long Jr. was funny, curious and smart. He was protective and supportive of his friends and family, and most of all he loved music. He would never be seen without his skateboard and headphones.

“It’s still hard to believe he’s not here,” Gertrude Pugh says. Nachelle, his mother, says she thinks of her son as the “biggest cheerleader” and a supportive friend still in death. She founded the foundation to keep his memory alive and give back to the community through arts scholarships for young people.

One member of Pivot Gang, Frsh Waters, recalls how he and the others planned the Feed the West Side food pantry, spread the word on social media and chose Columbus Park as a central location.

“We don’t want to say we can’t help our community just because the school couldn’t feed them anymore,” he says. “That hit the tipping point because we were already fed up. Community is one of the things we believe in on the West Side especially.”

In the week following the largest George Floyd protests downtown, West Side neighborhoods saw destruction and looting that reminded long-time residents of the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination more than 50 years ago—and once-thriving retail corridors that still haven’t fully recovered.

“The grocery stores got hit, most of them are closed…there’s grocery stores in the city that people can’t even have access to,” Waters says. “So we’re just setting up in the neighborhoods, to make sure it’s accessible—come get what you need.”

He says the food pantry is meant to make sure everyone eats in Austin no matter what, and that no one is forgotten, especially a fallen friend, brother and cousin, John Walt.


‘The Front Lines Isn’t Just Protesting’

Volunteers along 47th Street are spinning cardboard signs and shaking ice-cold water bottles and paper bags of sandwiches as cars pull up and grab what they need.

Aya Smith eyes the next CTA bus rolling toward Vincennes. “Everybody on the bus wanted food and drinks so far. There are folks inside who haven’t been able to leave Bronzeville to find groceries,” she says.

The bus squeaks to a halt on hot asphalt and passengers trickle off. Once they pass, Smith leads the group’s charge up the stairs and inside: “Free food for anybody! Free ice cold water! You thirsty? Who needs food and water? Free groceries across the street,” she yells. After passing out food and water, she hustles off with a couple of volunteers before the driver honks and drives away.

“We’re making sure everyone eats today,” she says.

On the other side of 47th, someone’s auntie does a two-step to “Mercy, Mercy Me,” snapping her fingers above her head as she zigzags through the crowd. The Ka’Lab art gallery here has been converted into a grocery store where everything is free and you can take all that you need, no questions asked: bags spilling over with red apples, sturdy stacks of mustard greens, a mound of sweet potatoes, a mountain of wheat bread, a wall of Almond Breeze.

When the looting started, co-organizer Iris Haastrup saw grocery stores shuttered and texted one of her best friends since the 6th grade, Karizma Blackburn, to start gathering donations.

The idea? “Let’s melt the wealth from people who have the means and redistribute it to the people in our community,” says Haastrup.

Inspired by Youth for Black Lives and the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, the two college juniors designed and dropped an impromptu flyer on Instagram. After it was shared by local poets like Eve Ewing and friends, the rest was history. Cars of food, cash, even volunteers materialized almost instantly.

“Providing people with what they need in order to survive is a form of resistance,” says Blackburn. “The front lines isn’t just protesting. It can also be donating to a bond fund or making sure seniors and babies have food right now.”

The spontaneity of the day brings back childhood memories of South Side summers for volunteer Jordan Lanfair: smoky neighborhood barbeques, busted-open fire hydrants and the feeling that everybody was, in the end, looking out for each other. The food, the joy and the love is palpable again today, despite the struggle. “We’re resilient. People say God bless each other, but my whole life it’s been God bless the South Side,” Lanfair says.


Food Distribution as Wealth Redistribution

Twenty miles down Western.

On Dave Ellis Flynn’s drive from Uptown on the North Side, he notices people jogging, walking their dogs, going about their normal day. But on the same street, in the same city, 20 miles away, the changes are obvious: a heavy police presence, and people who seem “devastated, you see on their face, people looking for food.”

The destination in the far South Side neighborhood is a tent set up roadside on 95th and Martin Luther King Dr. It’s called “Oasis on 95th,” where plastic bags filled with meat, fresh produce and basic groceries are handed off to people who walk or drive by. “Free food” signs welcome people passing by. Other signs say, “Defund police.”

“It’s been a food desert, a food apartheid,” Flynn says. “Right now, the fresh food stores, people don’t have access to them because of the uprisings. We don’t say looting, we say uprisings.”

Bringing groceries from the North Side to the South Side is an act of resistance, Flynn says, and it connects with the recent protests against police brutality.

“When we see voids for Black folks, we see immediate needs, and we’re here to fill those needs,” Flynn says, adding that the group of friends who organize Oasis also want to consistently pressure public officials. “There are demands, we see what folks in Minnesota have done through organizing.”

Flynn says many of the donations have come from donors on the North Side, some white allies. He urges folks who want to contribute to make the drive if they have access to a vehicle.

Hope Wang and Sun Kawazoe say they’ve come from Heart of Chicago, where they’ve loaded their car with goods like food, tampons and toilet paper from a fully stocked Pete’s on Cermak and Western. Though they’re unemployed and have avoided some of the crowded protests, taking resources from their neighborhood and spreading the wealth on the South Side is intuitive.

“This is how we feel we can more immediately serve the cause,” Wang says. “It’s something more tangible, a basic need.”

For more information on how to support Oasis on 95th Street (400 E. 95th St.) with donations or food, reach out to Resita Cox at resitacox@gmail.com.

 

 

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Cover image: Volunteers organize food and other essentials in the Austin neighborhood’s Columbus Park. Photo by Alex Arriaga for City Bureau.

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