Food justice and the case for mutual aid

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Illustration by Chloe Kendall

The holidays are just around the corner, and with them turkeys, tofurkeys, and hopefully genuine appreciation of one another. In times of acute need, when intervention by the state is not forthcoming, it is often neighbors themselves who take matters into their own hands. From hurricane-battered Puerto Rico to wildfire-ridden California and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in New York, stories of communities taking care of each other in the face of world-upending tragedy are as common as they are moving. In the era of a depleted welfare state, ecological collapse and mass displacement, it is more important than ever to center our capacity for mutual aid.

Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is one such organization. Unlike many other aid organizations, the MADR network avoids ideas of hierarchy and charity. Instead, the group models its assistance, services and volunteering on the basis of horizontality and solidarity. MADR prioritizes local leadership and identification of needs, rather than trying to impose its own standards and structure on those being aided. MADR has been deeply involved in the recovery efforts of post-Irma Puerto Rico.

A key point to understand about the situation in Puerto Rico is the U.S. territory has been on the road to austerity policies for years, acutely since the 2007 economic collapse. Therefore, any relief efforts need to not only address the immediate and long-term issues raised by the physical damage and displacement caused by the disasters themselves, but also the lasting harm brought by shortages of essential goods and services: food, water housing, health care, electricity, and more that have steadily worsened over the past decade.

MADR’s response to this situation has been diverse: Permaculturists have built solar arrays and water purification systems, doctors and nurses have traveled to remote areas to deliver badly needed healthcare services; and MADR organized food deliveries, K–12 field trips and classes, and even laundry services for families in need.

MADR’s allies have also been involved in a similarly diverse array of projects outside Puerto Rico both before and after the most recent hurricane season: from the aftermath of Irma and Harvey in Houston, Texas, to the earthquakes that have rocked Mexico City, to floods in the Mississippi Valley and West Virginia. MADR’s roots go back to organizations like Common Ground Collective and Climate Justice Movement, which take a holistic theoretical approach to the causes of and remedies to natural disasters which are often exacerbated by existing economic inequity and political marginalization.

However, it is not just the acute, media-saturated crises in faraway lands where one can see mutual aid at work. Situations with chronic needs have people working to address them, and Portland is no different from anywhere else. In fact, there are a wealth of peer-run organizations helping to facilitate people’s everyday needs right here in the city.

One such group is Food Not Bombs PDX, which hosts three free servings per week throughout the Portland metro area. Food Not Bombs is an international coalition of independent organizers that has roots in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, where sit-ins at nuclear missile silos required logistical support. Since then, it has blossomed into a broad support network serving anyone feeling a dearth of community or food security.

Food Not Bombs events can be fun. At a serving over the summer, I played ultimate frisbee with strangers and ate a delicious lentil soup in the park with a very age- and class-diverse convention of Portlanders. While friendly, Food Not Bombs servings also focus on creating space for radical political conversations, mostly relating to peace and anti-militarist action. This type of community building is important for those hoping to build up a powerful people’s politics, as well as those who don’t know where their next meal might come from.

Other local horizontally-run groups are assisting people in acute crises: not hurricanes or tornadoes, but during the tumult of political actions. Rosehips Medic Collective is a Portland-based collective of self-styled street medics who treat everything from chemical burns to abrasions and other medical emergencies that might result during a protest.

Snack Bloc PDX is another group which focuses on providing food and water to those present in activist actions in order to promote health and good spirits while reducing dehydration and exhaustion among attendees. Critical Resistance PDX’s campaign for “Mental Healthcare, Not Policing” supports training officers and provides services for mental health crises in the hopes of avoiding unnecessary use of force and extrajudicial killings of Portland residents.

There are also a number of institutional buttresses against food insecurity you can check out on campus. The PSU Food Pantry gives away five free food items per person per day, 12:30–2:30 p.m. Monday–Friday in Smith Memorial Student Union 325. You can also donate to the Food Pantry.

Harvest Share is also notable where you can get free produce at noon on the second Monday of each month outside Shattuck Hall. Show up at 11 a.m. to be sure you’ll get something, because their stocks disappear quickly! Neither of these regular events require a student ID, and you’re encouraged to spread the word to non-students who might need help putting food on the table.


The Libertarian Slant is an ongoing column by Jordan Olson.

To get involved with Food Not Bombs PDX, you can contact facebook.com/Food-Not-Bombs-PDX and check serving times and locations. Times may change as weather gets colder/wetter. If you’re interested in helping provide food for protesters, check out facebook.com/snackblocpdx, and if you’re interested in becoming a street medic or learning first responder skills, you can contact [email protected]. You can also support Mutual Aid Disaster Relief through mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/donate & mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/join

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