Keeping Atlanta fed through COVID-19

According to Feeding America, 1 in 8 in residents of Atlanta, Georgia, suffer from hunger. Community organizations are doing all they can to fill the city’s hunger gap, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for local food activists to connect with people in need. Today, in addition to an increased demand for food distribution, community leaders must find innovative ways to deliver food while following the Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

Since 2009, the latest incarnation of Food for Life has been providing food to the Atlanta community. The hub for Food for Life members is called the Teardown, which provides care and protection for marginalized groups in gentrified areas by educating people about their rights in moments of arrest and protesting gentrification, providing resources for survival. 

Initially, Food for Life would station their tables in the Edgewood neighborhood every week to give food to anyone who needed it. “It was just a group of punk kids,” said F4L member Earthworm, who I spoke with in front of Teardown on a Tuesday morning.  

A Food for Life volunteer sorts a produce box. Photo by Luna for Toward Freedom.

As punk as they were, they started a much-needed source for food in Metro Atlanta, and eventually more came on board. They are used to providing food, but naturally, the pandemic changed things. Their new initiative, ATL Survival, was created specifically in response to the coronavirus, and their goal is to deliver as much food as possible without any physical contact. 

“At the beginning of March, we would allow people to come in three or five at a time,” said Earthworm. “The next we were giving out pre-made boxes, the week after, we get your address and deliver it to you.” The pandemic meant Food for Life had an increased demand for food, but only three people were on staff, so they decided to put out a call to volunteers. “I was like, ‘where are we gonna get these people to deliver all of this food?’ but they came,” said Earthworm. As of mid-June, Food for Life had delivered over 3,000 boxes of free food to people in Atlanta. 

All the food is readied in collaboration with the Neighborhood Church in East Atlanta. The church basement is filled with loads of fresh produce and an assortment of dry goods. The produce is not as pretty and uniform as the food at a grocery store: it has bruises, dark spots, and discoloration. But to the Food for Life crew, none of that matters. What matters is that it’s fresh and safe for people to eat. The carefully selected goods at Neighborhood Church include treats from Trader Joe’s, organic fruits and vegetables, and even fresh pastries. 

All the food is donated from farms, donors, and overstock from stores. Fresh food is set for delivery; bruised, or damaged goods are set aside for those who will take it; and food waste goes into the compost. The idea is that none of the donated food goes to waste, and someone in the neighborhood might get fresh ground coffee or an organic apple pie that would otherwise have gone into the trash.

Sorting the contents of donations takes up a considerable part of the workday at Food for Life, but there is a commitment to the process. Preserving possible compost means more food can grow, and giving out donated produce ensures that folks can have healthy, balanced meals. Each food box is carefully curated for each recipient, with a variety of meals in mind.  

According to Food for Life depot manager Jordan Steriff, Food for Life’s plan is entirely collaborative “I think we’re learning to be as non-hierarchal as possible, [that] is the goal” he said in an interview at the warehouse. Even depot managers like Steriff ask the group for guidance about where items should go or where to place recyclables. However, there are some guidelines that cannot be questioned. 

Volunteers must always stand six feet apart, wear a face mask, and anytime they are possibly exposed to an un-sanitized surface, they must wash or sanitize their hands. Any surface that the food is going to touch must be cleaned, and food cannot touch the bare floor. 

“The assumption is that everyone that we’re delivering to is at high risk and vulnerable, and we’re asymptomatic carriers,” said Earthworm. Things can get complicated when a team effort requires distancing, which is why a “sanitation lead” role was created. Their job is to ensure all safety guidelines are being followed. “It’s an ongoing role of constant nagging, and it’s the worst,” said Earthworm, jokingly.

ATL Survival requires a lot of hard work, but volunteer turnout has been sizeable. “People feel so powerless having to be home isolated, and they wanna do something,” said Earthworm. Many people are happy to help, she says, simply because they believe everybody should have access to food. 

ATL Survival volunteer Amrit Kashyap sees the value in stepping up. “I think I have a better appreciation for what it takes to keep on living,” he said. Living, in this case, is not just about the physical upkeep of a human being. It’s about finding happiness and contentment through food.  

Activist and Food for Life collaborator Adrianna Ruiz believes nourishment is about keeping the spirit alive. “Eating is not just something you need for your survival; it’s about taking care of yourself,” she said in a phone interview.

According to Ruiz, the number one goal in food activism is accessibility to nutritious and tasty meals. If people can’t buy the food, you give it away. If they can’t cook the food, you cook it for them. If there is no food around them, you start to grow some. The hope is that everyone in the community can eat, and we can contribute to preserving the planet. As sustainable as this process is, Ruiz says the responsibility falls mostly on grassroots movements. “As a state, [Georgia] has the resources to provide food, but it’s not the state that is doing it,” she said. 

Food for Life is operating this summer, even as many of their organizers participate in Atlanta protests for racial justice after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police. There have been multiple protests since May 28th, as Atlanta streets have been ignited by angry residents weary of fatal cases of police brutality. The June 12 killing of Atlanta native Rayshard Brooks by two Atlanta police officers has kept people in the streets. 

Atlanta police have put 425 protestors in jail, including some organizers at Food for Life. Even though many of them were recently released from jail, their arrests made Food for Life more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure. “Some organizers didn’t feel comfortable coming back yet because of the jails’ sanitary conditions. They are self-quarantining,” said Steriff. Food for Life is shorthanded right now, but they are seeking new volunteers and pushing through. A visit last month showed new and familiar faces sorting through new shipments.  

Boxes are stacked to the top with new deliveries from USDA farms, and luckily, the group is still receiving tasty treats like fresh bagels.

Earthworm says ATL Survival will continue to operate until the pandemic is over. No one knows what resources they will have as time wears on, and the level of support fluctuates. But the group is determined to keep Atlanta fed. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing regardless, until it’s safe to open back up.”

Author Bio

Luna, is a writer, educator, and artist from Atlanta, GA. She is pursuing her journalism degree at Georgia State University. Her primary focus is media and pop culture analysis through a queer Black feminist lens.