Aug 7

Community Connections Feed Families in Crisis

by: Norah Langweiler

August marks five months since COVID-19 shut down the city. For many, that means five months since their last paycheck. Five months without the certainty of being able to keep food on the table. The rate of food insecurity in Philadelphia is projected to increase from 16% (in 2018) to a rate of 23% due to the impacts of COVID-19. While state and city governments are doing their best to manage any food shortages, the government response can fall flat. Food boxes provided by government programs are typically filled with dried and canned food that can be hard to use, and don’t generally provide fresh, healthy ingredients for a varied and nutritious diet.

However, a stumbling block for the average born-and-raised American (does anyone know what to do with canned pumpkin?) becomes an insurmountable obstacle to recent immigrants or refugees, among whom food insecurity is much higher than the city average. In these communities, the food culture skews towards fresh products and produce rather than the processed and packaged food largely available on WIC. Even when food is available, the cultural language and expectations around it may be untranslatable.

For many, the COVID-19 crisis has meant activating local (and often informal) networks of mutual aid to address their needs and the needs of their neighbors. Through Mural Arts’ work with immigrant and refugee communities at our Southeast by Southeast hub, we have spent years doing the foundational work of building support networks with community leaders, local residents, and organizations. These deep set roots allow us to take advantage of those connections by identifying issues quickly and finding creative solutions through a multi-faceted approach to problem solving.

When the crisis began, staff at Mural Arts began to pivot our work to address community needs. Almost immediately, a group of immigrant women who regularly attend workshops at Southeast by Southeast began producing handmade masks to sell or give away. When Meera, a doctor at CHOP and longtime partner in the refugee health clinic, heard about the masks, she placed a bulk order for hospital staff.

CHOP began offering community support grants and Meera volunteered to be the physician sponsor for a project with Mural Arts that could address the needs of immigrant and refugee communities, who suffered doubly from high rates of COVID infections and job loss. After weeks of complaints from the refugee community that the food boxes they were receiving were unhelpful, Melissa, longtime Mural Arts employee at the Southeast by Southeast hub, suggested developing a more tailored supplemental food box. 

That’s when Ange, the chef behind the beloved Sate Kampar, stepped in. Mural Arts and Sate Kampar had worked together on Sanctuary Suppers, a program that traded delicious meals for donations to charity. Ange got to work right away, using her connections as a chef and status as a member of the immigrant community to develop boxes suited to traditional recipes.

When Sate Kampar closed its doors to the public at the beginning of the pandemic, Ange moved their operations to a temporary space where she and her staff cooked for frontline workers. The space housed a number of other food businesses, one of which was Philly Foodworks, which satisfied the need for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes throughout the city. When restaurants closed down, farmers no longer had buyers for crops they had planned and planted, so Philly Foodworks stepped in to ensure farmers got paid and communities got fed. 

Even with multiple CSA programs throughout the city, there was still plenty of excess that went into the trash, so Ange began to use the leftover vegetables for food boxes. Ange pulls a crate of local, seasonal direct-from-the-farm produce every Sunday and packs the boxes with enough food to last the week. With about 70% fresh vegetables and 30% beans, rice, butter, cheese, and other nutritious essentials, the boxes are worth over $100 and are distributed totally free of charge.

While Ange heads up the procurement process, community health workers identify the families in need, volunteers from CHOP help to pack the boxes (which has become a streamlined process, thanks to the mise en place endemic to both chefs and doctors), and Mural Arts provides the handmade masks placed in every box.

This type of intersectional crisis response is only available to those who have deep connections within their communities. The ability to identify a specific issue and acutely respond in a creative and multi-faceted way is an essential skill for any neighborhood and the organizations that work within them.

Last updated: Aug 7, 2020

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