A Year and a Half Into Pandemic, NYC’s Mutual Aid Movement at a Turning Point

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The mutual aid movement continues, but groups are increasingly seeking new ways to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Arden Sklar

A community fridge in upper Manhattan.

This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists, with support from The Google News Initiative and The Pinkerton Foundation.

It’s April 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping over New York City. Kelvin Taitt, an East Brooklyn resident who just recently recovered from COVID-19, is on his way to a local grocery store, but not for himself. He just co-founded East Brooklyn Mutual Aid with two of his neighbors, and is in the beginning stages of creating something that will impact thousands. 

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At the grocery store, he pulls out the lists he’s made of families’ names and the food they need.

“So I had my own cash register and my own lane and every family had their cart and I would one by one, I would go shopping, leave the cart at the front,” he recalled in a recent interview. “Then I would go shop for the next family, leave the cart at the front, and then I would load up, and I would go deliver.”

A year and a half later, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid has undergone multiple evolutions, organizers told City Limits in interviews this summer. In the spring of 2020, as word about the organization’s work spread, more people began volunteering, and more families reached out to ask for help. Soon they were buying produce and other food in bulk from the Restaurant Depot. Then they collaborated with a group called the Brooklyn Packers to source food in larger quantities at more affordable prices. Now, they have made the connections to be able to buy produce straight from local Black-owned farms. Since the 2020 holiday season, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid has seen a drastic decrease in donations and volunteers, but Taitt said they’ve been adjusting the best they can, including by beginning to shift over to a food co-op model.

The group is but one example of the way mutual aid organizations have adapted to changing circumstances over the course of the pandemic.

In the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, mutual aid efforts popped up across New York City and the rest of the nation. These community based groups see themselves as something different than charity—they’re about working together to solve problems both at the individual and societal levels. People founded, volunteered, donated, and supported these organizations to fulfill the dire need for free food, food delivery, clothing, and other things that became inaccessible with the shutdown. As City Limits reported in November, when the economic fallout of the pandemic worsened last year, mutual aid groups evolved to deal with a growing roster of community issues, all the while dealing with decreasing funding and unstable volunteer support.

It’s been well over a year since that volunteer boom, and as the need for emergency help has decreased, mutual aid organizations have started to focus more on long-term goals and sustainability. This looks different for each group. In interviews with City Limits this summer, some people reported forming and sustaining their own smaller networks, some were trying to implement new systems of infrastructure, some were combining with other groups, and some were fulfilling different emergency needs than what they did before.

Despite the existence of a vaccine and a reopening economy, food insecurity remains a relentless issue, with Feeding America’s projected food insecurity levels for 2021 better than 2020 but still far higher than 2019 levels. In the Bronx, for instance, 16.4 percent of residents faced food insecurity in 2019. Experts project that rate rose to 22.6 percent in 2020, and that it’ll be as high as 22.3 percent in 2021. The increase has been even worse for children, with food insecurity growing from 25 percent of all Bronx children in 2019 to a projection of 36.3 percent in 2020 and 35.6 percent in 2021. 

Feeding America also predicted ongoing racial disparities in food security, with 1 in 5 Black individuals and only 1 in 9 white individuals in the U.S. expected to experience food insecurity this year. 

Decreased funds, fewer volunteers 

Many of these organizations experienced an influx of random individual donations during the first six months of the pandemic, and then again in November and December 2020, around the holidays. In 2021, funding has become more of a challenge. And as more people are returning to work and to regular routines, mutual aid groups also face a lack of volunteers. 

Taitt said East Brooklyn Mutual Aid has experienced this drop, seeing an estimated 70 percent decrease in volunteers after the holidays. 

“Unfortunately, we have to put folks on a system [where] before, it was weekly [food deliveries], now maybe it’s bi-weekly, and even unfortunately we have to sometimes cancel deliveries and shift people to another time,” he said.

Other volunteers are committed for the long haul, though, and Taitt and others are staying optimistic and doing what they can with what they have. Taitt said he delivers food every Saturday, sometimes up to 30 households, by himself. 

Anna Moccia-Fields, a volunteer and neighborhood point person for Clinton Hill Fort Greene (CHFG) Mutual Aid, said they do receive a consistent, level stream of donations and shoppers, around $8,000 to $9,000 in donations a month for more than six months. Comparatively, there were times early on in the pandemic where funds would get low and they would post on social media and get $10,000 dollars in donations in one day. 

The monthly funds they have now get used quickly. They have about 90 different houses who are paired with people who shop for them weekly. They also accept new requests, but abide by a shopping budget of $50 per person or $100 per household every two weeks, according to the group’s request form.  

New partnerships, new infrastructure 

For Ariadna Phillips of South Bronx Mutual Aid (SBMA), the decrease in funds and volunteer availability means turning to a larger network for help. This can sometimes mean reaching out to different community fridges or other mutual aid groups to ask for a delivery person, or sharing goods if one group has surplus material but no means to distribute it. 

In addition, SBMA has been looking to outside sources like grants from non-profit organizations. Yet Phillips emphasises the value of only accepting “clean money”— money that doesn’t come from real estate developers or political campaigns—and also turning down funds if the “strings attached” don’t align with the group’s values. 

“It is okay to say no to something if you think it would not value the inherent dignity and worth of your community. It’s okay to set up boundaries or to say, you know what, we’re not going to do this,” Phillips said.

Another group, Queens Together, is also switching from a donation-based model to something more sustainable. Though it doesn’t consider itself a mutual aid organization, Queens Together is an independent restaurant association that provides a connection between restaurants and communities in need to provide free food. Yet the organization’s launch coincided with the pandemic and, as a result, the services they offer somewhat paralleled those provided by pop-up mutual aid groups. 

Co-founder Jonathan Forgash estimates that they helped to feed around 8,000 people weekly from the middle of May to September of 2020. The group pays restaurants at a discounted price to provide the free food, and works with chefs, stores, community organizations, and religious groups across Queens. 

Queens Together has faced a drop off of funds and donations this year, too, but Forgash doesn’t see reason to despair.

“It became less about the volunteers and less about the donations and more about really working these connections, networking,” he said. “We have a million restaurants, we have 6,000 food businesses in Queens. Those are ready-made food emergency operation centers if you think about it.”

From the beginning, Queens Together has been supported by business growth organization Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC), and they’ve been talking about making Queens Together a department of QEDC. This would mean more grants, more recognition, more staff, and access to more resources. 

“We want to grow the restaurant association to offer [restaurants] advocacy, education, and real support,” Forgash said.

East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, for its part, hopes to achieve long-term sustainability by creating a food co-op, which will be run by and accessible to people of all income levels.

“We’re looking at sustainability, we’re looking at long term systemic change in our community and building something that allows for—if there is another one of these [pandemics]—for us to not have to rely on all those sources [individual donations and volunteers] we had to rely on before because we weren’t prepared.” 

In addition, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid had been in communication with the Workers Justice Project and the Drivers Cooperative, both food delivery workers rights organizations, to get stipends or payments for the drivers who’ve previously volunteered for EBMA. 

Beyond emergency food assistance 

As the pandemic progressed, mutual aid groups took on a variety of activities beyond delivering food and other essential materials—everything from holding “eviction blockades” to protect tenants from illegal evictions to connecting community members with mental health services. 

“It’s become a tighter community of people, so we’re dealing with more

profound sort of questions and issues that people face,” said Moccia-Field. “We’ve been talking about things like rent relief.” 

Housing stability remains one of the biggest issues faced by New York’s low-income communities. The Supreme Court struck down a federal eviction freeze in August, though many tenants in New York are protected by the state’s current moratorium that will be in effect through mid-January. But Phillips from South Bronx Mutual Aid explains that some evictions are happening already, and that Bronx tenants are being harassed in other ways by property owners who are “trying to terrorize them into leaving their units.” 

“It’s happening in the Bronx, not just in one place or another place,” Phillips said. “It is terrifyingly widespread and often targeting immigrants.”  

In addition to its food and supplies delivery work, South Bronx Mutual Aid was working in recent months to advocate for these families by connecting them to resources like lawyers, helping them know their rights and organize, or going in person to help record illegal acts on the part of property owners. 

Some mutual aid groups have also jumped on board the vaccination push. Recently, East Brooklyn Mutual Aid has been helping people who want to get the vaccine but are scared or stuck at home. Sometimes this entails using their drivers to bring someone to a vaccination site, or working with the city’s at-home vaccination program

The pandemic has raised awareness about ongoing systemic problems and forged community bonds that can now be used to push for systemic change, organizers say. 

“I think there’s always gonna be a need for mutual aid,” said Phillips “Regardless of whether we’re in a pandemic or not. I think there always has been a need for neighbors to help neighbors, especially in communities like the Bronx where you have so many pressing survival needs that are not necessarily being fulfilled.”