Op-ed: We Can Build a Better Food System Through Mutual Aid

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, everyday people have sprung into action to help each other out. Organizers and volunteers are working to get food to those in need, and to support food chain workers (such as undocumented farmworkers who generally cannot access government support). This surge in grassroots volunteerism has often been described—by politicians, and a plethora of new initiatives and networks themselves—as “mutual aid.”

It is heartening, of course, to see so many responses to the crisis coming out of care and concern for others. But “mutual aid” is more than simply people helping each other. Many efforts to address food insecurity do not challenge the existing structures of the food system, or the unequal economic and political systems that sustain food injustice. The recent virtual rally by the Poor People’s Campaign put inequality at the center and reminds us of the need to connect the personal, the political, and the economic.

Delivering groceries to seniors during COVID may be a kind gesture, but it doesn’t necessarily say or do anything about the rampant inequalities that characterize our food system and society at large. And the charity model for aid can even be counterproductive for transformative change. Take the example of mainstream food banks that often partner with big food corporations, reinforcing corporate power while sidestepping the root cause of food insecurity: poverty.

In contrast, mutual aid has historically described grassroots efforts that link real needs among the people (such as the need for food) with an inherently politicized approach to getting that need met over the long term. And, typically, mutual aid efforts operate from the assumption that only the fundamental transformation of society can truly meet those needs, and aid is mobilized in service of that larger goal.

There are many mutual aid efforts at work today. In Oakland, California, Black and brown farmers have organized to feed protesters in the upheaval following the murder of George Floyd, creating material and political connections that can serve as a scaffold for future change-making efforts. Unlike the way charity often paints aid recipients as helpless, in mutual aid everyone involved is considered necessary to create social change, and poor people must lead, not just receive. Hence aid does not flow in one direction, it is mutual, and builds reciprocal relations of solidarity.

Examining mutual aid’s histories and principles—and distinguishing it from one directional charity aid models such as the Red Cross or food banks—can help illuminate how these efforts might move beyond the immediate crisis and contribute to a truly transformed food system.

The Four Principles of Mutual Aid

Scientist and anarchist activist Peter Kropotkin first coined the term “mutual aid” in the late 1800s. Kropotkin’s 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution showed that evolution relied just as much on the bottom-up cooperation of individuals and species as it did on competition. Though based on ecological studies of animals, Kropotkin’s work had clear implications for human society—and for food production and consumption.

Mutual aid projects are distinguished from philanthropic-driven charity and simple generosity by four main principles: self-organization, egalitarianism, direct action, and the desire for social transformation.

Mutual aid efforts are self-organized at the grassroots level (often informally), rather than reliant on outside leadership or subject to external control. Poet and activist Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, who co-founded POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE with her mother Dee when they were living on the streets for many years, doesn’t use the term “mutual aid.” But she embodies it when she says, “Change won’t come from a savior, pimp, or an institution. Change will only come from a poor people-led revolution.”

POOR Magazine is “a movement of poor people helping each other [in] Interdependence.” Through their longstanding Homefulness and Sliding Scale Cafe projects in East Oakland, California, they practice “radical redistribution” at multiple pop-up distribution locations. They have been providing food and other donated goods with over 700 people every week since the coronavirus crisis began. As a nonprofit organization they take in donations to support their efforts, but the work is all volunteer.

“Change won’t come from a savior, pimp, or an institution. Change will only come from a poor people-led revolution.”

Rather than petitioning lawmakers or companies to change their policies or sharing memes on social media, projects like this take action directly, with immediate results that empower those involved. As the Southwest-based network Indigenous Mutual Aid puts it: “Any time individuals and groups in our communities have taken direct action (not through politicians or indirect means) and supported others … this is what we call ‘mutual aid.’”

Instead of asking those in power for assistance, many coronavirus response efforts have taken this more direct approach. Mutual aid is also designed to promote egalitarianism, which opposes hierarchies between participants, and between organizers and the communities projects serve.

The queer-led community garden Mariposas Rebeldes in Atlanta, Georgia, is organized along these lines. There, a diverse Latinx community that prioritizes trans and gender-nonconforming Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) grows much-needed food and medicine, shares skills and material resources, and organizes around members’ interests and pressing needs. The collectively managed garden provides a feeling of “safety and togetherness” for a community that often feels unsafe and alone, while members “practice the politics of horizontal decision making,” according to one garden organizer, Wotko, who doesn’t use a last name. The garden’s space is fully shared (there are no individual plots), as is its bounty.

Mutual aid projects are also usually connected to larger and more long-standing social movements and traditions that seek transformative change in society. “Mutual aid must be an act of resistance,” says the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR) network. Projects may be driven by or emerge from basic needs, but don’t simply exist to meet those needs.

In Puerto Rico, Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica organized brigades of volunteers to rebuild farms and homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and a succession of other disasters. But they’ve been working for decades to transition farming in Puerto Rico toward agroecology while dismantling the colonial power structure people there have suffered under. “We use apoyo mutuo (mutual support) to build power at the base, while we pursue a just recovery,” general coordinator Jesús Vasquez told Civil Eats.

Lineage of Mutual Aid

Just like volunteer efforts emerging today, historical examples show mutual aid in food and farming emerges largely as pragmatic responses by communities who are chronically excluded from mainstream institutions and denied dignity and justice.

The Geography of Freedom Map: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. (Click image for a larger version)

At the same time, the approach taps into traditions of collectivism and cooperation. “Mutualism formed the bedrock of countless Indigenous societies, based on foundational animist beliefs that everything has a soul, and that our very survival, our ‘daily bread’ if you will, is dependent on relations of reciprocity between ourselves, the land, and our non-human community,” says Meleiza Figueroa, who organizes mutual aid with Chico Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and North Valley Mutual Aid (which formed to support underserved communities after the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, and is part of the national Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network). Figueroa also organizes ecological planning with Indigenous groups through Chico Traditional Ecological Stewardship Program.

Since the start of the transatlantic slave trade and into the 19th century, enslaved Africans brought to the Americas ran away in countless ways, forming mutual aid or “marronage” connections with other peoples in resistance. These connections formed vast and thriving underground economies for survival and resistance among self-liberated African communities, Indigenous peoples resisting genocide, and even pirates and discontented, fugitive indentured Europeans. In many ways, the Underground Railroad is the most well-known mutual aid network of this era.

Black farmers were connected to and inspired by the examples of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, who insisted that movements be led from the grassroots, and created cooperative strategies for communal survival.

Closer to the present, many farmers had each other’s backs during the foreclosure crises of the Great Depression and the 1980s, purchasing each other’s foreclosed property at “penny auctions” in order to give the assets back. Throughout decades of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. South, Black farmers provided food and protected spaces for organizers doing political work in a dangerous environment.

In 1967, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was “born out of a strict need” to build power beyond voter registration and civil rights, setting up farmer coops and revolving loan funds “[from the] bottom up,” according to its late former director Ralph Paige. Black farmers were connected to and inspired by the examples of leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, who insisted that movements be led from the grassroots, and created cooperative strategies for communal survival. This orientation continued with the often-recognized Black Panther Party-initiated free breakfast programs.

A less-recognized part of Panther history is when they allied with the United Farmworkers (UFW) in support of the UFW’s boycott campaigns. The effect of mutual aid as political work, especially in building bridges across communities, identities, and movements, opens up possibilities for greater success in future political work. This can be seen in the current moment, with an explosion of efforts to share food, water, and safety equipment among demonstrators in the current uprisings against police brutality.

Challenges and Opportunities to Come

It might be questioned whether mutual aid can become institutionalized, and indeed few historical examples of mutual aid initiatives have sustained over generations. But some have. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives continues to operate in a grassroots democratic fashion to support its members. Food Not Bombs, an anarchist-organized anti-hunger mutual aid project now exists in 60 countries worldwide, 40 years after its first meal.

Like small and ecological farmers in the U.S., mutual aid efforts are often dependent on participants having other economic resources. For example, most Food Not Bombs chapters have rotating, but semi-stable, small groups of volunteers, host small fundraisers like concerts, use collective households’ kitchens, and rely on relationships with grocery stores and farmers’ markets for donations of food. Many contemporary efforts also rely on crowdfunding.

Mutual aid efforts are—for good and ill—often absorbed by established power structures in government and the “nonprofit industrial complex.” Professionalization, institutionalization, and bureaucratization all change the feeling, impact, and power dynamics of earlier incarnations. For example, the Panther’s breakfast program motivated federal officials to institutionalize school breakfasts, but such government programs include no meaningful control by communities or political meaning beyond feeding hungry children.

Powerful groups also often control how people organize by dangling funding in front of them, often tempering their more radical efforts, and redirecting them towards less threatening forms of organizing. As Gray-Garcia from POOR Magazine put it: “The charity industrial complex has nothing to do with poor people-led self-determination. [As a] matter of fact, if you invite in their blood-stained dollars to ‘support’ you, you risk the co-opting and silencing of your movement and work.”

And yet Figueroa points out that, “in order to build mutual aid networks on the scale that we need them, especially as we face a post-pandemic Great Depression, we will need an initial basis of material support from somewhere.” The challenge, she adds “is to do it in such a way that … is ultimately an investment in liberation and community autonomy, and not dependence on or exaltation of the giver.”

How do we bring more mutual aid to the food system? People who care about getting healthier and more sustainable food to more people can purposefully cultivate meaningful connections among volunteers and those “served” by typical aid projects. They can deepen political understanding through educational programs like those of groups such as the BIPOC-led “People’s Agroecology Process.” And they can redistribute the control and benefits of any project so as to reduce hierarchies and inequalities. Food movement participants can also redirect resources towards groups already operating by these principles by donating time and money to grassroots mutual aid groups rather than food banks or political candidates.

“Ultimately, the goal of building mutual aid networks is toward greater autonomy from the colonial capitalist system.”

As we’ve seen with farmers feeding protestors, food-focused movements can also use mutual aid strategies to support and build alliances with movements focused on other issues. Imagine if food producers and movements worked to secure the basic needs of those fighting for a better world for everyone. How can food movements rise to feed communities that are newly organized along mutual aid principles, like the previously unhoused community that recently occupied an empty Sheraton hotel in Minneapolis?

“Ultimately, the goal of building mutual aid networks is toward greater autonomy from the colonial capitalist system, and to not just imagine, but make real a liberatory vision of locally rooted solidarity economies that respect and enhance the reciprocal relationships between ourselves as well as the environment,” says Figueroa. “In this way, mutual aid, especially in the form of relocalized food systems, can be a critical element in tackling the global problem of climate change.”

Though they may not have all the answers for such a grand task, mutual aid organizers are considering the tough questions. Mariposas Rebeldes’s Wotko says the group has “been thinking a lot about how to move forward in relationship to other local projects [such as gardens run by the Black community], how to support them and receive support, since we know we can’t do this work alone. We know we need support, especially technical assistance in food production. But our hope is that, as we grow, we can share the safety and togetherness that our garden provides.”

This article included reporting, writing, and editing by Susan Park.

Top photo: Jamil Burns of Raised Roots Farm in Oakland, California. Raised Roots has partnered with farming collective Black Earth Farms to feed frontline protesters. (Photo credit: Erin McCluskey)

Antonio Roman-Alcalá

Antonio Roman-Alcalá is an educator, researcher, writer, and organizer based in Berkeley, California who has worked for just sustainable food systems for the past 15 years. Antonio co-founded San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, and the California Food Policy Council, and his 2010 documentary film, In Search of Good Food, can be viewed free online. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley, and an MA from ISS in The Hague. Currently, Antonio maintains the blog antidogmatist.com, conducts activist-scholar research at ISS, and leads the North American Agroecology Organizing Project. He is also in search of new land to farm – a tough prospect in the urbanized and gentrified San Francisco Bay Area!

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