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"Look at you! You have the prettiest smile!" Marcella Thompson greeted me as she walked across a cratered parking lot. She wore a white apron over a short sleeved button shirt and Bermuda shorts. Her neon green compression socks gave a funky flair to her otherwise classic style. Thompson stood out to me, but she is an everyday sight in this part of Durham, North Carolina.
Thompson feeds people in East Durham. Her nonprofit organization, The Mustard Seed Project, was officially founded in 2019, but she started providing meals to neighborhood children years before. Her office is in a small, worn apartment complex in East Durham where Thompson used to live with her daughters. She now lives nearby in a mostly Black neighborhood.
"Most of the folks who live [in the apartment complex] are Latinx," Thompson shared. "I walk here every morning from my neighborhood a few blocks away. Then there are a couple of other neighborhoods where I cook and distribute meals, groceries and family items."
For Thompson, and for Cathy "Mama Cat" Daniels, another Black woman feeding her local community in St. Louis, Missouri, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased the need for the mutual aid they already offered. But it also prompted other Black women, like Katina Parker in Durham and Mary Hooks in Atlanta, Georgia, to start their own food mutual aid programs.
The social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened the needs of the South's most vulnerable residents. As state and federal governments fail to provide enough financial aid and strategies to stop the harmful impacts of the pandemic, local projects are stepping in to fill major gaps in care.
Many of these projects eliminate financial thresholds or social barriers, such as religion, to accessing resources. As they have been throughout U.S. history, Black women are positioned on the front lines of community-based care work, particularly for those who are most vulnerable during crisis—children, women, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and unhoused people.
In an article for Eater Magazine, Jocelyn Jackson, founder of JUSTUS Kitchen and co-founder of People's Kitchen Collective in Oakland, California, remembers Black women who used food as an instrument for mutual aid and feeding others as an act of defiance. Georgia Gilmore sold plates of food to raise money for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, then operated a restaurant out of her home that fed activists working in Alabama. In 1969, Mississippi organizer and Black freedom icon Fannie Lou Hamer founded Freedom Farm Cooperative, which provided land and food to over 1500 families in Sunflower County as part of Black land sovereignty efforts. Ruth Beckford was the co-founder of the Black Panther's Free Breakfast Program that fed Oakland's school children free and nutritious meals. Though she was a dancer and social worker by training, Beckford used her gifts and influence to rally volunteers, garner donations, and change the course of history.
Daniels, who is a chef, explained that the name for her St. Louis-based nonprofit, Potbangerz, came from the cooking her mother did as a child in their Brooklyn tenement.
"My mother was a cook as well, a dietitian at Bellevue Hospital in the '70s. So as I would walk up to our tenement building, I could see the apartment windows fogged up and hear my Mom banging pots," she said. "Now that I'm a chef and have been for 43 years, I'm the one banging pots. But I bang revolutionary pots. Revolution is love. Love always wins. That's why I do what I do here."
Feeding the Future
The Mustard Seed Project began out of Thompson's desire to provide a safe and nurturing space for the young children in her neighborhood during their summer break, when caregivers are away at work. In previous years, Thompson would use her Social Security check and coupons to buy extra groceries that she would turn into snacks and meals for the neighborhood children. But when her daughter's chronic health condition required expensive treatments, she was forced to find another way to provide the meals. After meeting with Durham's mayor, Steve Schewel, she was awarded a CHAMPS grant that allowed her to create an entire summer program. She cooked breakfast, lunch, and a snack for 30 to 40 children per day in the apartment complex, and created educational activities for them.
Her work soon expanded to distributing healthy home-cooked meals, bags of groceries, and other household and baby items to the families in and around her neighborhood.
"There's a whole lot of things I can't do anything about, but these kinds of things I can," Thompson said. "So, I feel like this is what I ought to be doing."
The pandemic has drastically impacted her community's needs and how Thompson is able to meet them. Donations make up for her limited capacity to shop for her neighbors. Along with her typical offerings, she also distributes face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. What has not changed is the quality of the food residents receive.
"We not only provide shelf-stable foods, but fresh produce, meat, poultry, and the like." This includes meals prepared by Katina Parker, who Thompson refers to as "my little girl."
Preparing for a New World
Katina Parker is a filmmaker and photographer based in Durham. Her classic seventies ranch-style home is situated on a sprawling corner lot, and was covered the day we met with giant smokers, sinks, and steel carts shaded by tents. It was Load-In Day, Parker told me, but the scene didn't feel chaotic. There is a liturgical order to every moving part. After Load-In Day, the Feed Durham crew feeds at least 500 people per day for three days. On Sundays, they deliver gratitude plates to their supporters.
Parker told me that maintaining peace was one important reason for establishing Feed Durham.
"You're only as safe as the hungriest person in your community," Parker says as we sit beside two volunteers mixing an aromatic spice rub. "And I've been thinking about that a lot because the stakes are just being raised. Everything's been intensified."
Parker told me about an incident with an organization who rejected the food she and her team had spent an entire morning preparing and plating, all because it showed up late. "It showed me that as the situation becomes more desperate because of COVID-19, people may become meaner. This made me realize how unready we are for what's coming. If folks are getting angry for their food coming late, what's going to happen when our systems deteriorate to the point where we can only eat every two days?"
This grim vision made Parker conscious of the need for not only sharing resources, but also for identifying and teaching important skills to comrades and building strong connections with other organizations doing similar work. Many of the volunteers that come to Feed Durham have never cooked on this scale, but Parker is there to teach and guide them.
Parker typically hosts a large annual cookout for friends and family who support her and her daughter while she travels for work as a filmmaker. In April, she made plans to volunteer hands-on with her daughter at the Durham Rescue women's campus.
When volunteers were no longer allowed inside the shelter due to the COVID-19 shutdown, she reached out to offer a cooked meal instead—Feed Durham's first meal.
"At first I said I was going to cook, but I really thought I was going to cook for the friends to come to the barbecue and that maybe we could cook for the Durham Rescue Mission."
Despite initial reservations about working with the Durham Rescue Mission, which was rumored in the local queer community for espousing anti-LGBTQ Christian fundamentalist beliefs, Parker—a queer woman—has only had positive experiences with the organization.
"I was reassured that all are welcome," she said. "I made clear to the Volunteer Department that the food we were offering was being prepared by the hands of 'happy homosexuals' and if they were OK with that, we could proceed."
Many of Feed Durham's community partners—Urban Ministries and Helping Hand Ministries—are religious-based entities, which Parker says the organization navigates by being "out, proud, courteous, and clear about valuing ourselves as change agents," so that LGBTQI+ and multi-racial families can openly and comfortably contribute to reducing food insecurity in Durham County.
During their first barbecue event, Parker and her friends fed one thousand people.
When I asked why she loved cooking for so many people, Parker replies, "I don't. It feels prayerful. I don't necessarily love to pray, but I can say a few words or share a decent homily."
The meal prep itself seems like a prayer. Parker and her volunteer team wash and soak all the produce in baking soda and water to remove any heavy metals from soil contamination. She carefully selects each blend of seasonings and flavors to compliment every dish: from the herbaceous beans and rice, to the savory smoked turkey legs, to the delicately roasted beets dressed with citrus juices.
Parker's travels have created opportunities for her to connect with other activists and food providers across the country. While filming her documentary "Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory," she connected with Daniels from St. Louis.
Cathy "Mama Cat" Daniels was in her last year of culinary school when Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, about 10 miles from her home in St. Louis, Missouri. Young people from all over the country left jobs, school, and their homes to protest during the 2014 Ferguson uprising. As she went out in the streets passing out snacks and water, she met a group of young activists called Lost Voices, who were keeping folks on the ground up to date on police activity through social media.
The group was also sleeping outside every night in protest, occupying a parking lot encampment outside a barbecue joint located midway between the street where Brown was killed and the Ferguson Police Department. With the relentless rigor of the movement combined with the regularity of local police brutality, protestors were left without much downtime to feed themselves.
Daniels began to cook large family-style meals on Sundays to feed the Lost Voices crew and others who were holding vigil in Ferguson. Parker and Daniels also met during that time and became friends.
On December 23, 2014—soon after the protests began to slow to a simmer—another young Black person named Antonio Brown was shot and killed by police. When Daniels and her comrades arrived on the scene, Antonio Brown's mother shared that she didn't have the money to give her child a proper burial. Daniels gathered friends, family, and other allies to raise money for the funeral, and to cook the meal for the repast. She took the leftover food to an abandoned building called St. Mary's Infirmary, where a community of unhoused people found shelter.
The relationships that Daniels built while serving people during the Ferguson uprisings became the foundation for her nonprofit organization, Potbangerz, which feeds 100 people per week during the warm months, and many more on a daily basis during the winter months.
Potbangerz goes beyond merely cooking for the unhoused community in St. Louis; fellowship is critical.
"It's important that when you are feeding people," says Daniels, "you don't just give them something to walk away. You sit down and you break bread. We break bread, then we break down walls and get to know people. A lot of healing happens over food."
Making Hunger Political
Mary Hooks was familiar with being unhoused and vulnerable when she learned about Southerners On New Ground (SONG). Thirteen years ago, when Hooks moved to Atlanta to escape a home life impacted by the crack epidemic, she met a woman at a club who changed her life.
"I asked her what she did for work and she said she was trying to stop the shackling of Black women while they gave birth in prison," Hooks said.
Blown away by both the revelation of the inhumane practice and the idea of making change, the woman and Hooks became friends. As Hooks became more invested in the social justice concepts, her new friend told her about SONG and invited her to meet some of its members. Her first assignment was to recruit LGBTQ people for SONG's Alabama chapter. Hooks was promoted to field organizer in 2013 after the birth of her daughter, then to co-director in 2016. SONG was also the first space where Hooks and Parker met. They became friends and have collaborated on multiple social justice projects.
Before COVID-19, SONG was primarily focused on education, relationship-building, and collective action among LGBTQIA+ people of color and their allies. As Atlanta began to shut down, Hooks got word that important food distribution locations were also closing their doors. As new tent cities began to appear across the city, SONG decided to intervene.
Valencia Gunder, SONG affiliate and founder of The Smile Trust in Miami, Florida, who has extensive experience in building power mutual aid systems, decided to quarantine with Hooks. They began cooking breakfast for the many unhoused people in the neighborhood. Similar to Thompson, Daniels, and Parker, Hooks soon found a larger purpose for the work. With Gunder's guidance and the donations and volunteer efforts of their larger community, Hooks transitioned to cooking dinners three times a week and assembling care packages, which included PPE, snacks, condoms, and a "love letter."
"The love letters were to politicize the people," explains Hooks. "We wanted to feed them, but also communicate to them why they were hungry."
How to Follow and Support the Work
- Facebook @themustardseedprojectnc