Mutual aid efforts nourish Phoenix communities

By Jonmaesha Beltran, March 2021 Issue.

Every Sunday, NourishPHX, a group of volunteers, meet in Phoenix to assemble and deliver food boxes to queer families in need of food, household supplies, hygiene products, and diapers, emphasizing that the service is solidarity, not charity.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, mutual aid projects, like NourishPHX, appeared in almost every city throughout the United States. Volunteers utilized Google Docs, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and other social media platforms to create networks that picked up where the government lacked.

Last year, a host of Arizonans created mutual aid networks to sew masks, deliver groceries and medication, collect household supplies, and more for vulnerable communities. Many mutual aid organizers focused their efforts on combatting food insecurity.

Almost one in three households in Arizona experienced food insecurity since COVID-19, which is a 28 percent increase from the year before the pandemic, when the food insecurity rate was 25 percent, according to the National Food Access and COVID Research Team.

Before the pandemic, the Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, found that one in four LGBT individuals experience food insecurity. Boss is the name of one of the people we spoke with who, like others, created networks that center queer communities.

“I was looking for a way to keep us connected and make sure we were in communion in a safe way, and we continue to affirm that we got us and that our family doesn’t die just because the spaces that we usually gather do,” Boss, 28, said.

In March, Boss, who uses ‘they’ pronouns, began networking through Instagram with friends in the drag community that they usually would see at the bar every week, asking if anyone needed food or had a surplus of food to donate. Boss started collecting food donations in their studio apartment and making deliveries to the homes of those who needed it.

“It was really heartening every day to wake up and be reminded of why that food was there — it’s because I was connected with the community.”

Boss, 28, lead organizer with NourishPHX. Photo courtesy of Boss

Soon later, the network grew to more volunteers and implemented two donation sites at Whyld Ass and Xanadu. NourishPHX also stopped taking in dairy and meat products, requesting that people donate plant-based non-perishables. The network doesn’t accept plastic bags and tries to work outside of institutions like Amazon and Walmart.

The network serves 10 to 15 families throughout the Valley, from healthcare workers, independent business owners, bakers and chefs, and out-of-work drag queens. It also has six volunteers who assemble the food boxes and three people who deliver to houses in Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe.

Before each Sunday, a volunteer picks up homemade sourdough on Fridays, made by a friend of Boss in Tempe. Another volunteer picks up 70 pounds of produce on Saturday that NourishPHX purchases for $12 from Borderlands Produce Rescue. The volunteers also create prepared foods for the families, and volunteers are encouraged to also receive the food as a way to eliminate the idea of charity work.

Each family’s food box includes a grain, protein, veggies, fruit, and fluid. “We might do some Gatorades, some veggie broths, some pasta, and sauce, with a bunch of fruit and vegetables on top,” Boss said, adding that they are currently looking to include zines that highlight how the community can stay united.

Mutual aid networks have a long, rich history and can be traced back to early fraternal organizations. But it wasn’t until 1902 when Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, popularized the term “mutual aid” in his essay collection “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.” Kropotkin used examples of animals and humans to argue that cooperation was the most important factor of evolution.

For communities of color, mutual aid networks have always been formed out of necessity and as a response to discrimination. During the 1700s, free Black Americans founded societies that aimed to provide aid to freed slaves. In the late 19th-century, Mexican Americans founded Sociedades Mutualistas that aimed to provide economic protection, education, and community services to members who emigrated from Mexico and native Texans.

When Chinese immigrants in San Francisco were denied health care by mainstream hospitals in the 1800s, they built Tung Wah Dispensary, a hospital that served primarily Chinese residents. When it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1906, 15 community organizations formed the Chinese Hospital Association to reinvent it as the San Francisco Chinese Hospital.

During the height of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, many queer activists organized mutual aid networks. One network was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which advocated for HIV research, treatment, and policy change. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans activists formed the Common Ground Clinic, which started as a first aid station.

Through these mutual aid projects, many have learned that it’s okay to ask for help and that people don’t have to go through things independently. NourishPHX educates people who donate and volunteer about the practice of mutual aid and how it works as a service rather than a favor.

“For all the volunteers who come to us, we let them know that while a one-time volunteer is appreciated,” Boss said. “The long-term commitment and working these practices in your everyday life is what really causes transformation from the inside out.”

Randall Denton, co-owner of Xanadu, said he appreciates the mutual aid efforts residents are making in Phoenix and that it reminds him of his experiences of being in a punk rock band.

“Sleeping on people’s couches, trusting that when you go to a city that there will be a place for you to sleep and people who will take care of you. I feel like a lot of this comes out of that, where you try to pay it forward, and you pull resources, distribute them evenly,” he said.

Paulann Egelhoff, a photographer, started delivering food created each Sunday for NourishPHX in the fall. She delivers food to two families, which she already knew from other queer spaces.

“It’s interesting to be in a position where there’s a mutual aid group that’s not only feeding our community but feeding the queer families that we know,” Egelhoff, 33, said.

Egelhoff said since her involvement in the mutual aid network, her relationship with the people she delivers to has become stronger.

“I feel better knowing that I can help meet their needs in some way with some group,” she said.

Some have questioned the longevity of many of the mutual aid projects that arose during the pandemic. Still, many organizers are figuring out ways to combat food insecurity after the pandemic.

“I’m hoping that Nourish continues to be something that queer Phoenix know is always there them,” Boss said.

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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