Building Power so We All Can Eat

A beautiful day at FRESH New London!

Changes in federal policy around the child tax credit and school lunches are poised to exacerbate already rising levels of hunger and food insecurity. Come hear how FRESH New London, a small but mighty organization, is working to take care of people, build power, and change systems in New London, Connecticut.

Isabelle Barbour, Mic Check, WPKN, 2/5/22



Alicia McAvay: [00:00:03] The food movement’s been white, it’s been tremendously white. It’s been individualized. Like it’s about whether I should be eating organic food for my own health. Right? Versus like, when I think about it, I think I should be eating organic food because farm workers shouldn’t have to breathe chemicals in and know and the land shouldn’t have to deal with healing from those chemicals. Right.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:31] Hello, beautiful. WPKN listeners. My name is Isabel Barber, and I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s Mic Check which comes to you on this station every Sunday at 5:30 p.m.. Our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national and regional issues and their effect on our local community. Just as the phrase Mic Check mobilizes people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions, this weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. So today I’m joined by friends and colleagues from FRESH New London. You heard at the start of this segment the voice of Alicia McAvay, who is the executive director of FRESH New London. And you’ll hear more from Alicia again. But I kind of want to just set the stage for a conversation that will be about food, food, insecurity, love, family, community and justice. The percentage of Connecticut adults who say they did not have enough money to buy food has nearly doubled during the past year. And this is according to new data released recently by Data Haven. This is from its comprehensive, statewide Well-Being Survey. And of course, the burden of hunger doesn’t fall equally on all people. Even though the overall food insecurity rate was 17%, this really masks large differences across Connecticut by race, gender, age, income, disability and other factors.

[00:02:25] For example, approximately 11% of white, 25% of Black and 34% of Latinx adults reported food insecurity. In the past year, there has been a gradual rise in food insecurity or not having enough food. Almost every month since the end of 2021. Among households living with children in particular, the increase in food insecurity coincides with the end of the child tax credit. And this is. You know, this is part of why I wanted to do this story now was that we are looking at a time where not only have we had this the end of this federal support, we also are now having school districts that need to charge for lunch instead of providing free universal food the way they did earlier in the pandemic. And we’re also at a time of pre inflation or inflation where we’re seeing increases in the cost for all sorts of groceries. Communities all over the nation and all over the state of Connecticut are trying to figure out how to take care of their people. This is one community story. We’re going to zoom in and take a look at a small but mighty organization called FRESH New London. I’m going to pass it to Alicia McAvay and she’s going to be one of several voices you hear as we move forward with our story.

Alicia McAvay: [00:04:03] FRESH New London is a tiny but mighty food justice and grassroots organization here in New London. We are working together in our community to build change and control local control over our food system. Right. And that means your own individual choice, but also building a system together that allows your neighbor and the person across the city and all of us to actually increase our access to foods that we would like to have. And that looks like reclaiming land to grow food together. It looks like providing space for people to grow their own food and really thinking about how food insecurity and the food system has caused a host of systemic problems that we believe both policy and community connections and engagement can help shift.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:49] Alicia has laid out some serious concepts and she’s going to get into food security and insecurity in just a moment. The food system is everything that connects something growing from the ground to something that ends up on a plate. And this means farmers. This means people who take crops and make bread out of them. For example, if we’re thinking of wheat, this means people that raise, you know, animals for slaughter, people who slaughter animals. It is people who work in restaurants, it is grocery stores. It is all the things that are needed to get food that is growing in the world to the people that eat it. Sometimes there are blockers, things that prevent people from getting the food that they need. These could be policies, these could be access. Alicia explains more.

Alicia McAvay: [00:05:50] Food insecurity is exists when people cannot access food that is food. They want food, they need food that gives them joy within their means, whether it’s they can’t buy it or grow it, whether or not there’s a grocery store nearby, whether there’s quality public transportation, which we do not have here in New London.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:12] It’s important to note that food insecurity can affect people throughout the lifespan. Part of the beating heart of FRESH New London is its youth program. And Chloe Nunez, who is the food justice educator at FRESH does a lot of work with youth. Here is some audio that was recently taken from a youth mapping event. This was an opportunity for youth to share work they had done in mapping New London and showing needs and strengths of the city.

Chloë Nuñez speaking to a group: [00:06:45] Our seasonal youth programs employ high school aged in London, New Londoners teaching them to skills in agriculture, advocacy, organizing, leadership, development and self exploration. This fall, we asked our. Young people.All of which who have been at FRESH for two seasons or more, to create maps of New London that show a picture of what it’s like to live life and access food in this city as a teenager.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:12] I went to this event and it was joyous. As I was wandering, I got to look at the maps that youth made, and I had a conversation with Olivia Park about her map. She talked about a lot of things, things that matter to her from when she was a kid, places that she had been catcalled, and also food issues in the city.

Olivia Park: [00:07:35] While I do love New London and I love the places that I’ve been spending so much of my time, obviously since I’ve spent my whole life here, I think it’s important to capture that there are things that need to change or things that can be improved upon. A lot of the central themes of what people wanted were improved food access. Like, for instance, on my map, you can see that the major grocery stores were actually located in Waterford.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:07] The issue of food access comes up a lot, both in the New London community and among FRESH staff. Julie Garay is the senior program manager at FRESH.

Julie Garay: [00:08:20] So one of the workshops that we do at FRESH to kind of introduce young people into the life of growing food is it’s called your food story, right? And so what we ask is what is something that your family loves growing? What is something that you love to eat? What are three ingredients that your family always adds to their food, right? And that workshop always reminds me how connected we are. A lot of us in New London, especially young people, we have a lot of onions, garlic, all these very, like, hearty, rich, very nutritious foods that we just think are just for flavor. Right. And I think, like food is always thinking about my food story. Right? Food was never fully secure. I was never fully full food secure until I hit high school, probably growing up in New London. Immigrating, migrating, immigrating from Puerto Rico. We always ate very processed foods, right. And foods that will last on a shelf for years because that is what will get you by. And thinking back to those days. Right. And then starting to work at FRESH at 14 and bringing FRESH food to the house. My mother would light up because it reminded her of what it was like to grow up in the island where you could walk to school and pick up a mango on your way to school. And that’s your breakfast. And that is food secure, right? Being in an island that you know where to get food and it’s always reliable is security in a sense.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:58] Food pantries are one part of the food system. Specifically, they are part of the emergency food system. FRESH has a program called Food for the People and Esther Pendola is the coordinator of that program. Esther describes.

Esther Pendola: [00:10:16] Food for the People was started because of the COVID pandemic and the Health Improvement Collaborative sort of understanding that families needed food and local programs were shutting down. So as it was sort of this emergency that came about because while the need for food was increasing, programs were decreasing. And so we started just to sort of take up that gap.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:45] Gonna interrupt, Esther, for a quick second. The Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut is a group of individuals and organizations that come together to forward health planning and health action that is needed in southeastern Connecticut. FRESH is a member of the Health Improvement Collaborative.

Esther Pendola: [00:11:10] And what we found was that families needed an emergency food system to access that was warm. They needed one that spoke the same languages that they spoke. And they also needed something that wasn’t going to be full of rules that that caused families to not be able to access that food for whatever reason, whether it’s because they didn’t have the right documentation or they needed to register with technology, and they didn’t have that or they didn’t understand the language. So all of those things made the need for this type of food system really important. And so now we are operating every Wednesday at the New London Senior Center and we start every Wednesday at 9:00 AM unloading about 10 to £15000 of food and giving it all out in one day. And we do that every single Wednesday.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:17] I think most of us will recognize that there’s a care and an intimacy in supporting people when they are in great need. Julie explains.

Julie Garay: [00:12:31] Being a part of the food pantry that happens on Wednesdays, which is Food to the People Pantry, mainly run by Esther through FRESH umm. She wanted to do community surveying, and I started doing community surveying, walking around to the cars that would pull up to get boxes of food. And I saw so many of my childhood friends from my mother, a lot of neighbors that I know. And there was so much joy. Right. And it was like, Oh my God, I know you. You’re Julia’s baby. You guys have the same face and oh, make sure they add extra potatoes because I used to babysit you. So it’s it’s the love and joy that comes from food, right? Whether it be I’m giving you food, we’re growing food together or we’re feeding each other right now.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:23] There are a couple of frames that we can reach for around providing services or resources to community members. One is charity and the other is mutual aid. Food for the People is definitely more of a mutual aid program. Mutual aid is about people helping one another and people building power together and community together. This power can be used to change or shape systems that are problematic. Here’s Esther again.

Esther Pendola: [00:13:58] So I think one of the reasons why we’ve become super popular is there’s there’s not a structure with our program that gives a hierarchy. So the families that are coming in are often the same family, the same people are volunteering as getting food. Probably half of our volunteers are also picking up boxes of food for their families. They need a place where the volunteers who are giving out the food are also speaking the same language. So most of our volunteers speak Spanish or the staff speak Spanish or Haitian, because probably 95% of the families that we serve speak one of those two languages.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:48] Alicia and Esther and really all of FRESH understand that in a just world, we wouldn’t need pantries.

Alicia McAvay: [00:14:58] Part of building a strong pantry system is that it’s essential in this current system right now. You know, we we can’t exist without the emergency remedy right now, although it’s not emergency, it’s ongoing, because emergency would imply that there’s a moment in time where somebody is in trouble. Right. This is ongoing crisis where we live in a city where the median income is something like $35,000 and we are not able to feed or house ourselves as the cost of both continue to rise. Right. So food assistance programs are essential at the moment, but our goal is to dismantle this system so that we don’t need them anymore. And we think that a way to do that is really that the people who are most impacted are going to know how to change the system. They’re going to know what they need. And that if there were not so many barriers in place, folks would be able to access the food they need in a number of different ways and not simply through food assistance, that we would be able to reclaim land, that we would be growing our own food or growing food for our neighbors, and that we just need to start removing the barriers for that to happen. And building those relationships is key to that because we want to understand how to work together and we understand what it really could look like to be liberated from those systems.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:20] Embedded in what Alicia is saying is that to get the thousands of pounds of food needed to support people. There are some strings and things have definitely gotten better during the COVID pandemic– there’s been a decrease in the amount of documentation needed, but there’s still an aspect to the emergency food system where folks need to kind of be eligible to get food.

Esther Pendola: [00:16:54] So we are required to ask some basic information like their name, their address, and their phone number. However, they don’t have to give us all of that and we tell them that you don’t have to give us any of this information. We just we are required to ask. And so who requires you? So in order to get rt fat money to t fat food, which is federal federal food and it’s a lot of staples. So they are important for us to get. We are required to ask those things. But interestingly, we for income it just asked them to verbally attest to needing the food. So that’s a new that’s something new that just started. And I think it’s a great a great new component. No one’s needing to show me proof of their income, which I think is key. Our belief really is if someone showing up and waiting in a line for emergency food, they need food.

Alicia McAvay: [00:18:05] There’s so much shame with coming with a host of documents. There’s so many hoops to jump through in order to get food, which is a basic need that everybody has the right to have. But also, I think there’s a culture in our food assistance programs of. Because we set these programs up. We deserve to decide who gets food, we deserve how much food they should get, what kind of food they should get. And our culture at Food for the People is simply to be a pass through. We have access to this food –as much as possible. We would love that food to be culturally relevant and healthy and everything everyone wants. But basically we don’t control that food or the people who get it. We offer a space for people to come and get food.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:51] Like all things in FRESH. The desire to have a mutual aid frame for the Food for the People program came from really listening to community members.

Alicia McAvay: [00:19:04] FRESH facilitates the Food Justice Action team of the Health Improvement Collaborative. And we that kind of came out of a process where we worked with community ambassadors and helped identify some of their priorities in their communities and food insecurity, food access and cultural relevance really came up, but also stress and the like, sort of really demeaning culture that exists in the emergency food system. And so we really wanted to start a group that wanted to talk about accessing food with dignity at all points, whether you’re going to the grocery store or your high end co-op or you’re going to a food assistance program. And so right now we’re actually looking at providing training and assessment of how the emergency food system exists across New London. And then we’ll do that further into southeastern Connecticut to really understand why those barriers exist and who is controlling the rules of each food assistance program and why are they putting these rules and barriers in place, hoping to educate folks on their boards and their and their volunteers about the systemic root causes of hunger and that they perhaps don’t have to have so much control over those resources that they can pass that control on to the folks that are using their services.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:26] It’s worth clarifying what food justice is really about. Here’s Alicia.

Alicia McAvay: [00:20:31] Food justice is seeking to dismantle a lot of the problematic cycles that happen. Certainly at FRESH, we’re acknowledging that the start of the agricultural industry started when European colonists came here and stole land. Right. And then brought labor. Stole labor. And brought slaves here from West Africa. And that is how the food system was built. And it was never fixed. So. There’s never like we can’t even talk about a return of a time when we were doing this well, other than to look at, like the indigenous ancestors that lived here in North America and to look at their growing practices, to look at small scale farming in different places in the world that is helping communities thrive and survive. So first of all, it’s just acknowledging these injustices or how our entire food system was set up. And it continues to perpetuate today despite the fact that we’ve made some advancements. Another sort of piece of that is that because everything is for profit, there are and there’s so many steps in the chain, we’re so disconnected and disconnected from where food comes from or disconnected from how it’s processed. And part of being able to own control over our food access is to reconnect to it. And so we do a lot of work here around growing our own food, not necessarily because we’re going to be able to grow everything we need or because that is the only solution. But it helps build connections.

Julie Garay: [00:22:09] Historically and understandably, people of color are fearful and low income folks are fearful of being vulnerable and trusting. So to be able to have your own community be in a space of the most vulnerable that you will be that week adds a sense of safety and it becomes so strong that those folks who come to pick up food then start volunteering. There’s a lot of volunteers in the food pantry who are also families that picked up food, and then they’re like, Oh, you guys are kind of shorthand. Let me you know what? Let me come in an hour earlier and load up a couple of those boxes. I’ll put my boxes aside, help load up all your boxes, and then I’ll go home.

Esther Pendola: [00:22:56] So while we’re doing this work, we’re also at the same time thinking about ways to incorporate some of our values into a food system that is more readily available and can turn a food system sideways. So the idea that food could be available like in a grocery store setting instead of what we’re doing now, like let’s let people choose and start moving it towards a more food justice model instead of just an emergency food system.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:23:36] Whenever we start talking about changing the status quo, we’re talking about building power together. Alicia gives a really pertinent example of how FRESH has collaborated with community and is really clear that FRESH holds itself accountable to community members.

Alicia McAvay: [00:23:57] It’s really important to us that it isn’t just about calories. It’s not just about providing even FRESH vegetables. It is coming together and building connections and sharing with each other and breaking that isolation for ourselves and our are like nourishment of our souls, but also because together we have power. When we’re isolated, these systems of profit and power can really take hold and become more powerful. But if we if we approach them together, we have a much greater power to dismantle them.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:35] Can you take a moment and talk to me about power and building power and how that’s been useful or utilized? To support the advancement of food security in the region?

Alicia McAvay: [00:24:53] Sure. Well, that’s there’s there’s a lot to there’s a lot to that. But the little bites that I’ll take off are even within our own organization. So there was sort of a shift at FRESH from growing a lot of food out on a farm in Waterford to growing food in New London. And when we made that shift, we immediately started finding blighted properties in New London that perhaps just could be productive green spaces. And so one of the spaces that the City of New London actually identified as a potential community garden was our McDonald Park Community Garden. And it’s a city owned little pocket park that had been completely abandoned. There were cars, there was trash, there were all sorts of things happening in this park that were not making the folks in this neighborhood feel like they could use this public space at all. And so when the city approached us to build a community garden, we probably in the past would have been like, Yeah, sure, great, we’ll build the garden and then people will use it. But we actually really flipped that on its head and we were like, We don’t know, maybe. And so then we spent the next about six months door knocking in the community, putting out a survey within a quarter mile. It’s a really residentially dense neighborhood with a lot of renters. We were able to talk to 121 people who lived within a quarter mile of this space and really understand what folks wanted in this space.

[00:26:24] We had a leadership team emerge of six neighbors who came and would help plan. We held some other public meetings and what we learned was that, yes, folks were interested in a few community garden boxes and growing your own food is really great. But what they wanted was a public green space to be engaging in. And so that looked like things like, Well, I don’t want to grow my own food, but I’d love to pick some raspberries. There. And I don’t want to grow my own food or pick raspberries, but I want to go there and sit on a bench and be surrounded by beautiful green things. So we really were able to model this park around the things that people wanted, and it’s become a great success in a space where we can actually continue to talk to people. As we went through this process, there were a number of things with the City of New London that were going on. Our main garden site was actually part of a city building that was being sold at the time. We needed to talk to zoning about some certain things that were happening on that parcel. There was some over policing in the neighborhood, which is a low income renter neighborhood. It abuts up against some heavy industry. So there’s actually a waste company that was breaking city policy by running their garbage trucks at 4:00 in the morning.

[00:27:43] So we were just learning all of these things about the experiences of people in this neighborhood and actually became a place where people started talking about these things and going to city council and going and lifting these issues in other community groups. And one of the things that happened was we were going to be asked to leave the building that was sold. And we had good relationships with people both through McDonald Park and our gardeners well enough that people came out. We had young people. We we had some of our youth leaders, our youth program participants, and many people from the community came out to a public meeting that wasn’t even actually about FRESH, it was about something else. But we were able to kind of take that over and we have stayed. We were able, through the sale to get a lease agreement to stay in this space. And now the space is absolutely thriving. There’s 60 community garden beds. We run our youth crew workshops out of there, so we have a pavilion and a pizza oven. We run our plant sale out of there and it’s a hub that is right in the center of schools and residential neighborhoods and place where people can walk. So we kind of this one little story of how power can grow really influenced the way that FRESH operates and the footprint of that neighborhood, which, you know, it was supposed to be a parking lot.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:29:06] Is there a way that people can help move this forward?

Alicia McAvay: [00:29:12] We’ll be very interested in hearing from folks across the income spectrum about whether they would whether they would come to a community grocery store. We are really interested in thinking about how we develop forward with everybody in mind. And of course, at the moment, FRESH New London would love to have any donations from anybody who is inspired to help us build a just food movement here.

Isabelle Barbour: [00:29:41] How would people go about making a donation?

Alicia McAvay: [00:29:44] You can visit our website

Isabelle Barbour: [00:29:49] Many thanks to FRESH for participating and to you for listening. Bye for now. See you next month.