I arrived in Minneapolis in July of 2020 to find buildings turned to rubble, people grieving, and a community rebuilding. During my first volunteer shift at Phillips Community Free Store, which was being run out of the Grease Pit Bike shop in South Minneapolis, tables were lined up outside, pop-up tents shading all manner of produce and household items, and a mountain of diapers that were ready to be given away.
People took numbers and those numbers were called when it was their turn to come up to the tables and take what they needed. Cars lined the streets as parents with children in tow waited their turns. It was loud; our “customers” spoke mainly Spanish, Oromo, and Somali and younger members of the families would often translate their words into English.
Those first few months, I learned a lot about what people look for and how they cook their food. I convinced Latinx families that yellow and green summer squash are virtually the same and that both can be tasty. And I watched the way that scarcity can wreak havoc and stoke fear in a community and can be a divisive tool that separates us from one another. We all continued to show up and we grew together and learned not only how to work with each other but also what it means to be in community together.
The free store was just one project in a larger constellation of mutual aid projects that expanded or took root in Minneapolis in 2020. In a city where the history of redlining and the legacy of racism dates back to the early 1900s, the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer spurred a string of protests that lasted all summer—the nation’s second-largest uprising, after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The response also resulted in the largest National Guard deployment since World War II and over $500 million in property damage. Target and Cub foods — the largest suppliers for groceries in the area — were both damaged and the community of South Minneapolis was left with very few options for accessing food.
South Minneapolis is full of community gardens, tiny libraries, and neighbors who know one another. It’s a melting pot for First Peoples, East African refugees, African Americans, and Latinx, Hmong, Vietnamese, and white people living at various intersections of marginalization. Before the pandemic, the neighborhood was already home to a number of established mutual aid groups, including Southside Food Share, which began feeding residents at an encampment called the Wall of Forgotten Natives in 2018, and Sisters Camelot, which has been giving out free organic food twice a week for the past 20 years. But after the uprisings, many community members leaped into action to help meet the increasing needs of the community. Now, a year after the uprisings, rates of food insecurity in the Twin Cities have remained high and many mutual aid projects are finding ways to continue their work.
Mutual aid as direct action
Mutual aid at its essence gives communities the opportunity to self-determine and organize in the ways that allow everyone to live a dignified life. Unlike charity, which tends to involve a one-way dynamic — as organizations enter neighborhoods dictating their own agendas — mutual aid is reciprocal, inherently political, self-organized, and egalitarian. It often involves direct action and is rooted in a desire for social transformation. Whether it involves the distribution of seeds and plants, groceries, or medical supplies, mutual aid also takes place outside of systems of governance that silence the marginalized, and it is based on the understanding that communities have the power to dictate the world they want to live in.
At the Phillips Community Free Store, which is run by a collective, we see these principles play out every day. Community members can access fresh food from local farms, food staples like rice and sugar, and essential household items. Alex Gomez, who has been involved from the beginning, told me that the first days after the George Floyd uprising were marked by a collective acknowledgement of the need. “There were people driving around who would notice the tables of food and goods and stop on the side of the road and unload hundreds of dollars [worth] of items from their car for us,” said Gomez.
In its first year, the Phillips Free Store managed to raise over $100,000 to buy food and other costly items such as diapers and menstrual supplies, through a combination of individual donors and fundraisers. The group maintains community accountability by being wholly transparent about their finances through a public Google doc linked to their Instagram account — an important choice considering the public criticism of how some groups that responded to the uprisings handled a large influx of donations.
The free store has used the uprisings as an opportunity to connect community members to local farmers. We purchased items such as eggs directly from local farms, received donations of meat from farms, and, through the LEAFF Program run by the Good Acre, received over 80 cases of free local produce a week from BIPOC farmers. The store has also moved its operations to a local church and scaled down from its original five-day-a-week schedule to just one day a week.
The store provided home delivery to 174 families over the winter and currently has a waiting list of more than 40 people, but it now hopes to continue expanding the service. We are also forming new relationships with more farms and organizations in order to get food directly to more people while bypassing grocery stores. And, unlike many mutual aid groups, the store has also become fiscally sponsored by the Social Good Fund.
As self-organization and determination
Meanwhile Southside Foodshare — a self-described “constantly communicating amorphous blob” — grew from a group of seven people operating one day a week before the pandemic to a group of about 44 people operating five days a week.
The group’s response to the uprisings and the pandemic were fueled by a crew of residents of one South Minneapolis punk house and their friends. They had been feeding people — primarily BIPOC folks — living in homeless encampments for years. But they organized, expanded, and started a pop-up outdoor kitchen in their backyard. The goal was to provide food support to people participating in the Black Lives Matter actions as well as those whose food access had been cut off.
In a recent email conversation, a spokesperson for the group told me, “More and more people got involved, [planning] out everything you might imagine — equipment, safety protocols, menu planning, food sourcing, scheduling, etc. People who had experience cooking at Standing Rock and Line 3 protest camps were in town, and they had invaluable knowledge.”
At the height of the uprising, the group was serving 300 meals a day. Since then, it has joined forces with the Seward Cafe and the group’s members work out of the café’s commercial kitchen four days a week to serve 120 meals a day. It receives food through donations primarily from North Country Food Alliance, a worker-run food sovereignty nonprofit in the Twin Cities Metro Area.
The group has maintained a focus on feeding unhoused people. In 2018, there were about 4,100 people experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County; 49 percent of those people were Black, and 15 percent were Native American, despite being 1 percent of the population. Over the last year, there has been continued violence and frequent evictions of the people in the encampments by the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department.
“Violent evictions displace people, they separate people, and they disconnect people from resources. We have tried to stay connected with our friends and community who are directly experiencing this violence by staying consistent and showing up at new locations people are forced to move to,” the spokesperson told me. They said the group’s relationships with their community members and their ability to marshal resources grew exponentially in that time.
One of the founding principles of mutual aid is that those providing service also stand to benefit equally. So what does it mean for a group who primarily serves unhoused individuals to be run by people with houses? Southside Food Share members asks residents what kinds of food they want to eat, they take into consideration the dental needs of the people with respect to the kinds of foods they cook, and they actively go out to encampments and hand people meals and interact with them face to face.
The group distinguishes itself by rejecting what its members see as “colonialist mentalities of saviorship that often come from religious-based charities and government aid.” They prioritize treating people with respect and care. Whereas soup kitchens and food banks also often involve a time commitment, “we believe that bringing food to people and meeting them where they are at is a way to give them their time back,” said the spokesperson.
Before it began collaborating with Southside Food Share, the Seward Cafe closed its doors to transition from being a space run by a primarily white collective to a primarily BIPOC collective with 15–20 members, including east Africans from the community it is situated within.
Kieran, a member of the new collective who didn’t want to share their last name, hopes the café can be a “place where people can get what they need, physically and emotionally.” The café now functions as a free store, giving out food primarily to the East African neighbors in the area and had a soft opening last fall, serving a rotation of different Oromo dishes and featuring a menu that is mostly vegan and far more affordable than it had been.
“In the same way that the uprisings pushed friends and neighbors to become organizers and comrades on an individual level, they also pushed the café’s collective to build a space where a community could live up to its potential,” Kieran told me.
The collective’s members are also committed to ensuring that their work is culturally relevant — which is a distinguishing factor of many mutual aid projects.
”The best way we can — and have — differentiated ourselves from the one-directional model is by recognizing that we cannot truly serve the community unless it has tangible agency in how our process is undertaken,” Kieran adds. “I remember finding a great deal on shampoo to give out but hearing from an East African collective member that folks would prefer something better fitted to their hair textures. That meant going with a slightly more expensive option that actually [worked for] those who’d be using it. I think a lot of one-directional work assumes an organization’s knowledge base goes beyond that of the community, whereas in many cases, the opposite is true.”
As social transformation
As food insecurity has begun to receive less public attention, South Minneapolis mutual aid groups have stopped receiving the kinds of large donations that were common early in the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped them from serving those who are still in need: Community members built a greenhouse last fall at George Floyd Square to keep plants safe from the subzero temperatures; Seward Cafe had a community workday at their garden space and are finding ways to incorporate both the community and farming into their programming. Southside Food Share members are still serving their neighbors at encampments, and the Phillips Free Store is restarting in-person distribution every other week.
Mutual aid is an act of resistance, and we are just some of the people in Minneapolis who have chosen this path. The murder of George Floyd has been an impetus for those of us who believe in making healthy, whole foods more accessible in a country that constantly fails BIPOC people in a myriad of ways. This is mutual aid at its essence. We’re working together to serve one another, listen deeply, and create the world we want to live in. And we are proving that feeding ourselves and finding happiness don’t need to involve the mindless extraction of resources, or the emotional energy or labor of marginalized bodies.
Luz Cruz is a queer Afrolatinx transgender writer, chef, and food justice organizer. Nicole Miles is an illustrator from the Bahamas currently living in the UK.