Star Route Farm is using mutual aid to change how food becomes accessible to communities, especially marginalized communities in New York.
Located in Charlottesville, New York, the farm’s leadership says that, amid the 2020 racial justice protests, they began to rethink their role in addressing systemic racism through food inequalities and the way they believe farmers play a role in white supremacy. Food, they believe, should not go to the highest bidder.
Owners Amanda Wong, Tianna Kennedy and Walter Riesen are the farmers behind Star Route’s new approach.
“In the past, I have felt really alienated by how white farming is,” says Wong, who helps lead crop planning and farm management. “I was growing food mostly for white middle- and upper-class people. That is not something that we wanted to support, but didn’t necessarily know how to get out of, and I think we were just at a loss at that moment of time. We’re willing to give up everything to try something different.”
Then Wong came across Bushwick Ayuda Mutua on Instagram. Founded in April 2020 by a group of Bushwick residents, the mutual aid project aims to address food insecurity by assisting people – especially undocumented and low-income families – in obtaining vital supplies and social services. It’s one of a wave of mutual aid projects that sprang up early in the pandemic, offering assistance to community members during the lockdown.
In New York City, nearly 1.1 million residents, or 12.5% of the city’s population, struggle with food insecurity, according to Food Bank NYC. Many of the predominantly Black and Brown residents of Bushwick, a neighborhood which in 2019 had a poverty rate of 20.7%, are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
It’s an ongoing problem that long predates the pandemic. “If this pandemic ever ends, food insecurity is still going to be an issue in our community,” says Anne Guiney, a member of Bushwick Ayuda Mutua.
To combat this, Star Route Farm now donates most of its produce to Bushwick Ayuda Mutua and a host of other New York mutual aid groups, including East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram, Comida Pal Pueblo and volunteer-run cooking collective Nuestra Mesa BK.
Last year, the farm provided these mutual aid groups with over 17,000 pounds of food. This year, they plan to donate over 70% of their produce. Food donations are funded through fundraisers and the 607 CSA, an organization that works to make local food available to as many New Yorkers as possible by providing delivery and funds.
The farm has crafted a plan with the group based on the fact that many groups, including Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, do not have a cooler space. They also aim to cater to the community’s unique cultural background, which includes many Latinx and Cantonese families: the vegetables delivered include carrots, potatoes, beets, zucchini, cucumber, peppers, black beans, and herbs like callaloo, epazote and cilantro. (For their free distribution with Bread & Life food pantry at the Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram temple in Elmhurst, the farm grows Southeast Asian staples including Thai basil, cilantro, squash and scallions.)
Every other week, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua places orders with Star Route Farm and other suppliers, and every other Saturday, orders of produce are ready for families on their list. They work out of the Mayday community center, which is located at the Bushwick Abbey. The mutual aid feeds around 175 families per distribution of twice a month.
Faceli Alvarez, 34, came across Bushwick Ayuda Mutua when she was passing by Saint Nicholas Ave and saw the lines of people outside. When she went inside to get more information, she was told that the organization assisted the community with food and clothes. From there on, Alvarez registered and started to receive messages from the organization about receiving food; eventually, she herself became a volunteer.
Her own household of five has long suffered from food insecurity whenever food prices in her neighborhood creep upward. “We cannot have good quality food because we are always looking for something cheaper,” says Alvarez.
Bushwick Ayuda Mutua also provided essential household goods such as toilet paper, soap, shampoo, sanitary towels, clothing and fresh produce, as well as kitchen staples such as eggs, rice, beans and oats. The produce that she received would last her family four to five days.
Wong says that one of the Star Route Farms’ long-term goals is “building an integrated food supply chain where everyone who is involved in mutual aid projects can participate.”
But for now, it’s about getting the word out.
Figuring out ways to connect with people in need is central to their mission, Wong says, of “being able to support working-class communities of color through access to really healthy food that, without our donations, would just go to wealthy white people who will be at farm-to-table restaurants.”
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Shania DeGroot is an Emma Bowen Foundation Fellow with Next City for summer 2022.