We’d like to share with you a story from one of our partners that is working to address food security and food justice issues in Brooklyn, NY. Allilsa Fernandez’s words illustrate our mission of bridging the food gap to build a food security oasis for communities struggling with food insecurity issues.
Food has a powerful way to connect us to each other, to build community. It has the power to help us build memories, create memorable farewells, provide emotional comfort, and teleport us into safe spaces.
In 2003 there was a black out in NYC. I remember that people were scared at first because it was very hot that night and there was no air conditioner nor fan, the ice cream began to melt and the cold drinks became hot in matter of hours, and there was no way to communicate via phone. Suddenly my vecina (neighbor) came out in her Dominican style nightgown and yelled out to all of her neighbors in Spanish “everyone!, come outside. I need to tell you something”. One by one adults across the neighborhood came to the stoop steps and when they were all gathered my neighbor said “all the food is going to go to waste. The fridge isn’t working. It’s hot tonight and we can’t sleep. Who would like to join me in cooking and eating?”. Right away a few women laughed and started naming plates in Spanish that they were going to cook, “I’ll bring the rice”, “I can make coffee”, “I have some melting ice cream that we can still eat”. Till this day I have never seen anything like it. The stove were not working but these dominican ladies quickly used tools that they learned in their country. They gathered leña (firewood) and cooked on top of that. Soon the worry, fear, and disappointment faded away as we gathered around to have a feast. A young man had opened up the fire hydrant to cool off the neighborhood, the kids were eating and playing games like hide and go seek, and the elders were eating and sharing stories. That night we had built a community to help us survive the black out.
Food has helped us survive many things, like the recent deaths of my aunt and uncle. When my uncle passed away from cancer, the first of 16 siblings to pass away, it was very emotional for my family. We weren’t sure how to process his death but we turned to a cultural tradition, something countless of latinx families participate in after a burial, we turned to food. The day of the burial a few of my cousins didn’t attend his funeral instead they set up tables in a backyard with food, sodas, ice tea, dessert and coffee. Don’t ever forget the coffee with a Dominican family.
Food was what brought us together to process the death of my uncle. As we ate, we talked about his life, what kind of man he was, and how he died. My family had built a community to process death; a community of support, love, and empathy. Sadly, two weeks after my uncle’s death, my aunt passed away and it was a painful experience for my family having to deal with the death of two close relatives back to back. This time we weren’t too sure if food would help, in fact, many of us didn’t think it would help at all. We were wrong.
The day of my aunt’s burial we had a food gathering in her backyard. At first it was very awkward because everyone had been crying so hard since her death and many continued to cry even at the gathering. ‘No way food could be helpful’ I thought to myself. I thought this was a death that we simply wouldn’t be able to process. Next thing you know, someone opened up all of the pans sitting on several tables. It was homemade Dominican food; moro, ensalda de papa, ensalda de codito, moro de guandules, etc. People began to talk as they served themselves a plate and soon enough we found ourselves taking pictures and laughing. Who would have thought that out of all the emotions we would we feel it would be laughter?. We realized that day that we only have a little time with our loved ones and many of us, although we love each other dearly, for some reason or another we didn’t have photos with each other, so we took the photos. We told each other how much we love one another. And as we grabbed the coffee, a staple in a Dominican family, we laughed even more remembering so many beautiful things my aunt said or did, and how her legacy lived on via our actions. Food had not only built a community to process one of the most painful deaths we had faced, but it provided a safe space to share a range of emotions without judgment, it provided us a space to heal, and it provided us a way to speak about things that on any other given day are very difficult to speak of.
When catastrophe happens, that’s when we most need of community and I am a strong believer that food is the bridge in creating a positively impactful community. Take the pandemic for example. Since March I have been a part of mutual aid work and have helped move hundreds of boxes of food to families in need. The families were happy to get food but it never built a community. It was just a distribution of food. I usually saw them one time and there was never a conversation or a connection. It’s a very detached process. However, there is something so powerful about sharing food with one another, and having a conversation while that exchange is happening.
Around August, before my uncle’s death, I decided to cook for folks and invite them to my house to pick up the food. When they were a block or two away from my house, I would place the food outside in a box for them to grab. We made no direct contact due to covid-19 and we kept our distance. This was different than handing out food for several reasons. One, I wasn’t the only one giving something out. The people who came offered to donate money, brought their own containers and some brought extra containers so that others could eat. Some people brought masks to hand out to others, and other household items. Secondly, and most importantly, we talked to each other. Via my window we would share our day, how work was going (if they were working), or how it was challenging to find a job, we talked about the struggles the pandemic brought, about family members and friends, and I noticed that we were building a community. Soon enough people were checking in on each other and making friends, suddenly we didn’t feel so alone and isolated.
Food justice should be more than distributing food, it should focus on building communities. When I think of food building communities I think of spaces where people can come together, share, and feel safe. A place that is more than just a handout. Imagine if during the black out my neighbor would have said “here is some food, have a good day” and had left. Or if during my aunt and uncle’s gathering they would have handed us a plate of food to take home. No way we could have built a community, and there was no way we would have built a supporting environment.
What I envision in society is a place where people can come together, chat, build a network and eat. A place that shares resources and helps people while eating good food. This idea isn’t too radical. In NYC there is an organization called Neighbors Together which not only shares food, but it also provides housing, health care, job trainings, and other resources. However, their concept (like other organizations) are still rooted in distribution. The organization gives out the food and resources, and there isn’t an exchange between people. What I envision goes one step further.
I envision a cafe where people can bring food ingredients, if they want to, and where people can exchange their knowledge, skills, and experiences. A place where different organizations can come to the cafe and share ideas and where community members are the ones leading, not white, wealthy, abled folks. I strongly believe that the community knows best what it needs.
We can change the system by building the spaces we wish to see. We can build wonderful communities via food, because food has the power to bridge us together.
Join us in building accessible food for all. Visit www.kellys-kitchen.org and donate what you can.
Thank you for your support. We need your help.