Food discussions always take place with the onset of the holiday season. Many questions come up: what to eat, how many to serve, who’s doing the cooking, and how will the food be prepared?
The holiday season is also one of the primary times larger society remembers those who will not be celebrating with food—those who live day by day with food insecurity.
When people lack access to good quality, affordable and nutritious food, it takes a toll on their physical and mental health. Food insecurity means a person may not know if they will have another meal, much less what that meal will consist of. “By November 2022, food insufficiency grew to 10.8% of New Yorkers and rates for households with children increased to 13.4%,” New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a report published this past March. “Over the last two years, Black and Hispanic or Latino adult New Yorkers were more likely to report food insufficiency than both white adult New Yorkers and adult New Yorkers overall.”
Some community organizations have taken it upon themselves to try to tackle this crippling problem, by creating food programs that provide nourishment and allow people to push themselves further in life.
Dr. Waleek Boone, director of the Transition Academy at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College (MEC), says that at one point it was not unusual to find MEC students who were homeless.
These were students from low-income households who had lost their food assistance and medical benefits after graduating high school. They were registered for college but couldn’t afford to pay for MetroCards, so they were hopping the turnstiles or asking bus drivers for a free ride. They were homeless, or sometimes just had difficulty trying to maintain themselves in a home. And then, when at home, they had no food. Often the whole situation would become so discouraging that some students would stop attending school altogether.
Transition Academy started as an idea, a method to try to help students live securely while studying. Initially, Transition Academy had no resources, just an office, says Dr. Boone: “The first order of business was I created an intake form. This was [so that we were] not only thinking about homelessness, because if a person’s homeless they’re dealing with other issues as well. The intake form consisted of assessing how do they get back and forth to school? Do they have enough clothing to feel comfortable in the classroom? Are they eating balanced meals every day? Are they having to do technology on their phone? I looked at a holistic approach––not just at the homelessness––and it turned out that not only were these students homeless, they were also hungry on campus.”
Medgar Evers College’s Transition Academy looks to end hunger among students.
MEC’s Transition Academy created its own Cougar Country Food Pantry which offers kale, collard greens, bok choy, chicken, salmon, halal meats, fresh beans, 100% juice, and more. But they found that the food pantry didn’t fully satisfy the needs of MEC students and their families. Organizers turned to offering vouchers to the school cafeteria and vouchers for reduced price/fresh produce at the local farmers market, as well as developing relationships with local supermarkets so they could give students vouchers to go to Foodtown where they could find some of the things not available in the MEC pantry.
Transition Academy also conducts workshops and helps students find jobs. What started as MEC’s effort to support students experiencing homelessness and food insecurity has become a point of entry where students can find all kinds of resources. “It was difficult in the beginning because when students are faced with those hardships, they generally hide in the shadows to avoid this embarrassment. They don’t want anyone to know their business. So, the best selling point was: ‘Anything you share will be confidential with us.’ That’s how we began to build up Transition Academy and have students come out from behind the shadows to seek the resources.”
Meanwhile, across the Hudson River, members of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP) have been working for the last four years with a South Jersey farmer and a local company to bring free food to residents in Newark, New Jersey. Their program brings in produce like garlic, peppers, onions, and other “stuff that our community don’t get—or, if it’s in our community, it’s sold at an exponential price,” said Zulu Sharod, chair of NABPP.
“Last Wednesday, we gave out over 100 whole chickens, free of charge,” Sharod told the AmNews. “You didn’t have to show us an ID. You didn’t have to write your name down on a piece of paper. You didn’t have to give us your name. They came and they took those chickens. And I’m hoping like hell that we get some turkeys or chickens this Wednesday because the price for a turkey right now is damn near $50 and if we can get that to a family where they can feed their kids over the coming holiday, then that’s a job well done.”
The NABPP’s efforts are to counter food scarcity in New Jersey’s highest populated city, Newark, where Blacks make up over 46% of the population.
In 2022, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) designated Newark a food desert community (FDC)—a city with infrequent “geographic access to healthy food options.” And Newark is not that unusual. The nonprofit news organization Sentient Media points out that, “in the U.S., food deserts are a result of efforts to segregate U.S. cities into predominantly Black and predominantly white neighborhoods through federal urban planning and housing policies…
“The USDA estimated that in 2019 somewhere between 11% and 27% of the population lived in areas where there is a significant concentration of poverty and physical distance from a supermarket. Other research suggests that approximately 20% of Black households reside in food deserts.”
When the NABPP decided to initiate its free food program in the tradition of the 1960s Black Panther Party organization, it purchased the building at 309 S. Orange Ave., which had sat empty for years. Now renamed the Hassan Shakur Community Center, NABPP uses the building for their food program, to conduct workshops, for political education classes, and will soon offer karate classes for kids.
“Not only the Black community, but the brown community and the poor white community––all of us are suffering in hell because our community is controlled by monopoly capital. It’s controlled by people that don’t really give a damn if we eat or not,” Sharod said. “That’s why we have to develop these gardens where we cultivate our own food. That’s why we have to come to our neighbors and say you don’t have to spend $10 on a bag of apples. You could come right to the community center and get it free of charge and use the $10 towards your medicine or towards a kids’ uniform.
“Food is an important aspect of our survival. It’s not an aspect of our struggle, it is survival. If you don’t eat, you die.”
Both NABPP and Transition Academy are open to community support and donations. To contact them, send an email to Transition Academy at email@example.com or to the New Afrikan Black Panther Party at firstname.lastname@example.org.