Help for the Hungry: Mutual Aid Networks Thrive During Pandemic

 by Alexa Peters

In March of last year, shortly after the city shuttered the first time due to COVID-19, Seattle’s Maria Lamarca Anderson wanted take-out. She called up a BIPOC-owned Filipino restaurant she’d been meaning to try, Beacon Hill’s Musang Seattle.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’d like to order food.’ They said, ‘Oh, well, you can’t, but if you need food come and get it,’” said Lamarca Anderson.

She was confused, but Lamarca Anderson drove to the restaurant anyway. Once there, she learned that upon closing their businesses when the pandemic hit, Musang’s owner, Melissa Miranda, had pivoted from regular restaurant operations to form the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective with a few other local restaurant owners, including Chef Tarik Abdullah from Feed the People. Ever since, the coalition had been donating their kitchens and labor to make meals for anyone who’s hungry, 100% of the time.

“I said, ‘So, this is what you’re doing. How is it getting out there?’” said Lamarca Anderson. “They said, ‘People just have to come here.’ Which means [people] needed to know about it, number one, and they needed transportation. So I said, ‘I’m going to go deliver for you.’”

Since that Saturday in March, Lamarca Anderson, who works during the day as communications director at University of Washington Bothell, has been volunteering several nights a week to pick up and deliver meals prepared by local restaurants to unsheltered people throughout the city. By now, Lamarca Anderson, who is sometimes assisted by a friend or family member, has hand-delivered about 5,000 meals — as well as ample clothing and supplies.

“It’s humbling, right? I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I approach someone and they say, ‘No, I had a sandwich, give it to someone else who needs it,’” Lamarca Anderson said. “I’m like, ok, that sandwich was probably that guy’s meal for the day and yet he’s going to turn this down because he knows someone else has not had a sandwich.”

For Lamarca Anderson, helping to feed people comes naturally. In fact, she delivered meals as a volunteer at Lifelong AIDS Alliance, also known as the Chicken Soup Brigade, for 24 years, so why not do it again now? 

“People are making masks, people are doing all kinds of things,” she said. “I don’t do any of those things, and this is something I knew, so it was just second nature when they told me they didn’t have a distribution system.” 

Lamarca Anderson is just one of the growing number of people across the globe taking it upon themselves to offer what resources they have to support community organizers and enhance their local pandemic response. This phenomenon has transformed the “radical” idea of mutual aid into something mainstream and has led to the formation of entire mutual aid networks — complex ecosystems of community businesses and private citizens who pool their resources to better help their neighbors.

It’s a good thing these do-it-yourself relief networks are on the rise, because many traditional systems of social welfare are buckling under the weight of this unprecedented crisis. The World Bank projects that the COVID-19 pandemic will add 88 million to the 150 million people around the world already living on less than $1.90 a day. Since March 2020, King County has reported a sizeable increase in food insecurity, which previous research has shown correlates with hikes in unemployment. As a result, food banks and other relief organizations in Seattle and around the world are overwhelmed, making the unprompted generosity of neighbors essential, particularly in those communities that are already underserved.

“For communities that already felt neglected prior to the coronavirus — especially People of Color and disabled, LGBTQ, and low-income people — there may be an extra layer of fear around relying solely on the government to deliver what’s needed during this pandemic,” reports Vox. “So it makes sense that we’re seeing a wellspring of mutual aid groups devoted to meeting the needs of these particular groups.”

In Miranda’s eyes, the fact that Lamarca Anderson could take the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective’s show on the road has been integral to its ability to feed and connect with a larger cross-section of Seattle’s homeless.

“It has meant the world. She has been the reason our food makes it to the people,” said Miranda. “She sees people face to face, and that’s something that takes a lot of heart and courage. She’s the person I talk about when I talk about the things we all can do.”

But Lamarca Anderson is quick to underscore the mutual in the collective’s aid network — giving credit first and foremost to the restaurants and then to friends, family members, and complete strangers who she says have shown incredible generosity in response to the many calls for donations she put up on her personal Facebook page.

“I can’t even use my car trunk. Seriously,” Lamarca Anderson laughs. “I mean, I got a text earlier from a friend of mine who brought me a boatload of stuff last week, and she said, ‘Hey, happy to help, saw your post about protein. Happy to contribute. Do you still need sleeping bags?’ People […] want to help. I am merely the driver.”

Miranda gives an even deeper glimpse into the sprawling infrastructure of volunteers behind the restaurants in the collective. For instance, there’s Oxbow Farms in Carnation, Washington, which was donating fresh food for them to use for many months at the beginning of the pandemic. There have also been Musang customers who donated extra funds at the time of purchase as well as other local partners who’ve made the preparation and distribution of approximately 600 meals a week possible since March.

“A lot of it is just donation-based. There’s not really a lot of any government funding or help on this side,” said Miranda. “But we formed these partnerships with folks that allow us to also provide [more] meals. We’ve partnered with Wasat and South Park Community Center so we provide meals for them on Wednesdays. And then we also provide meals to the Southeast Seattle Senior Center on Fridays.”

As of early 2021, Musang is getting ready to reopen at reduced capacity, per Phase 2 guidelines, while also accepting take-out orders over the phone and through delivery services like GrubHub, which they began doing again in June 2020.

Though the restaurants of this collective spent the first four months of the pandemic operating under the name Seattle Community Kitchen Collective in order to make information about their services easily accessed and in one place, the collective is currently “on pause” while they search for more funding — and potentially, 501c(3) status — to make what they’re doing more official and sustainable long-term. Still, many of these restaurants continue to offer free meals of their own volition. For instance, Musang makes free meals on Monday and Tuesday for pickup and delivers meals to the community on Wednesday and Friday, which they advertise on their website.

That means Lamarca Anderson will be sticking around, too, as long as there are still restaurants making hot meals for hungry people.

“I will deliver as long as restaurants provide food during the pandemic,” she said. “But please, please, please, don’t focus on me. Focus on what people can do. I just believe in general that people should always help no matter what … and this is something I knew [how to do].”

Both Lamarca Anderson and Miranda emphasize that people who want to help during the pandemic — but who may feel intimidated or unsure of where to start — should never underestimate the impact of small yet consistent aid that already plays to their strengths. After all, they say, the thing you have expertise in may be just what organizers need to bring relief to more people.

Learn more or donate to the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective here. For a roundup of resources on food insecurity right now, Seattle Eater put together a comprehensive list here. To learn about other relief work in Seattle and ways you can contribute, visit the city of Seattle’s COVID-19: Resources for Community page.

Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.

Featured illustration by Vladimir Verano.

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