Building Solidarity and Power: Fed Up Fights the System by Feeding Those in Need

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Fed Up’s food distribution gives away fresh produce and encourages recipients to organize against inequality.

Fed Up Durham
Photo by Tom Simon

By Fern Alling

Every other Friday the Lakewood Shopping Center parking lot is transformed by a flurry of activity. People stuff bags, load cars and stand by the road holding colorful signs that read, “FREE FOOD/COMIDA GRATIS.” When it’s sunny, and even when it’s not, energetic music plays from portable speakers to keep the mood light. 

This organized chaos is the making of a community project called Fed Up that gives free food to families in need. 

Fed Up distributes food two ways: through home deliveries or in-person pickups. On distribution days, neat lines of cars collect huge brown paper bags, each stocked with cloth masks, hand sanitizer and goods from the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Sankofa Farms. A leaflet with political reflections in English and Spanish accompanies each bag, too, signaling the project’s intentions.

The endeavor is the collective effort of three North Carolina organizations: Carolina Jews for Justice, NC Raise Up (the NC chapter of Fight for $15) and the Triangle chapter of the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. Steering committee members at NC Raise Up expressed concerns about layoffs and worker protections early in the pandemic. They envisioned a project that would meet workers’ immediate needs and bring them into the discussion about economic inequality in the state. 

Fed Up Durham

CJJ and PPC-NC were their first choices for partners. From protests to potlucks and political study meetings, both groups consistently made an effort to better their relationship with NC Raise Up over the years. Those strong relationships are what made Fed Up possible. 

Tremaine Toney, a NC Raise Up steering committee member, recalls a distribution event where she went to pick something up at Lakewood’s Food Lion. A store employee noticed her Fed Up T-shirt and asked if she could get some food for herself. “It saddens me, because you’re working in a grocery store, and you still can’t afford to get food?” Tremaine says. “It was hurtful to see that. But it also instilled in me another reason why I fight to help families and people who are low-wage workers be able to get what they need.”

Tremaine emphasizes that Fed Up’s mission is simple: “solidarity, not charity.” Part of that means respecting recipients’ privacy. At most charities, Tremaine says, “You have to have a name, address, workplace and things like that. We don’t ask those questions.” She adds that gathering such information is off-putting “because [recipients] feel like they’re gonna be shunned, or it’s gonna be thrown in their faces. … They’re just coming for food; they’re not coming to tell you their work history or interviewing for a job.” 

So at Fed Up, recipients are only asked for their phone number. It allows recipients to maintain their privacy and their dignity, too.

Fed Up Durham

But “solidarity” means more than that. It’s about the relationships formed in the process. Fed Up delivery drivers are encouraged to chat with recipients on their route, and on Sundays, organizers follow up with a phone call and invite them to join the movement. “It’s so easy to slip back into the idea of: We’re here to give,” Lauren Fine, a CJJ leader, says. “We’re here to build solidarity and build power, and the giving of food is an initial act in order to build power.” 

She recalls a conversation she had with another CJJ leader about drivers. “I [assumed] most of the drivers would be people with means and people with privilege. But one of the other leaders was like … ‘Let’s think about it as people who have access to a car and time to do it, which could be people who are also recipients.’” This is another way Fed Up subverts the charity model: recognizing both recipients’ abilities and their needs.

Anita Simha of NC Poor People’s Campaign strives to find commonality with everyone involved in the project. “We have different experiences, but we’re all way closer to struggling with an unexpected medical bill than we are to being the next Jeff Bezos,” Anita says. 

Anita shares the project’s three goals: to meet the community’s immediate needs (sharing food), to build a shared understanding of why hunger persists despite abundant resources (political study groups and political literature in the bags) and to organize (phone banking and canvassing). “We’re not showing up to ‘help’ someone who’s hungry,” Anita says, “we’re coming together to build a movement and fight a system that produces hunger in the first place.” Anita ultimately argues the root cause of hunger is a “twisted moral logic” that justifies wealth disparities.

Food insecurity is a persistent problem in Durham. In 2019, the county had an estimated 12.1% food insecurity rate, meaning nearly 40,000 people couldn’t consistently afford good, nutritious food, or sometimes, any food at all. Some experts estimate the pandemic will raise that number to more than 46,000, enough to fill five Cameron Indoor Stadiums

Political knowledge or personal beliefs aren’t required for participation – Lauren says people just need to be present. “It’s not passive like, ‘I’m going to show up and ladle some soup into a bowl and then walk away and feel great,’” she says. The work at Fed Up is deeper. It’s questioning why such work is necessary at all.

“We’re not just out here doing this for fun,” Tremaine says. “We’re doing this because we want to see change, we want to help people, and we believe in the work that we do.”

Fed Up is currently accepting volunteers. Those who have time on Fridays can take on a delivery route, hand out bags at the distribution site or set up equipment in the mornings. Phone banks are held on Sundays and in-person canvassing on Wednesdays. Specialized teams working on spreadsheet maintenance and food sourcing are also available. Click here for more information.

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