Photo by Kevin RC Wilson/Shutterstock
Photo by Eli Wilson/Shutterstock
Fuel the People works to feed thousands of marchers at protests in Washington D.C. and New York.
Fuel the People works with local BIPOC-owned restaurants to nourish thousands of people at protests and social justice events.
Three weeks ago, Allegra Tomassa Massaro and Gaïana F. Joseph started making sandwiches to hand out at the protests they planned to attend in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Initially, it wasn’t a coordinated effort. Massaro lives in Washington, D.C., and Joseph lives in New York City, but the two had bonded in college over shared passions for social justice and food and stayed in touch. Neither was surprised when they realized they were both responding to the moment by feeding people.
“We decided to collaborate to figure out how we can sustain this work,” says Massaro. And more than just feeding the front lines, they also wanted to connect the front lines back to the community.
While simultaneously working their 9-5 jobs and dealing with a pandemic, Massaro, who is 28 and does business compliance and ethics at a law firm while applying for a JD MBA, and Joseph, a 25-year-old product manager at a tech company, began to reach out to Black- and POC-owned restaurants in their communities to partner with, and Fuel the People was born. Now, through their restaurant partnerships and with donations from other supporters, the grassroots coalition of organizers and activists provides locally made meals, snacks, water, masks, hand sanitizer, and more to frontline protesters at events big and small in D.C. and New York.
“Nothing that we’re doing right now is brand new,” says Joseph. “[Activist and political leader] Fannie Lou Hamer had a similar project she was working on with young black farmers, and of course the Black Panthers had the Free Breakfast program [started in the 1968]. We’re working with the blueprint that the people that came before us have given us.”
In just its first week, Fuel the People partnered with eight restaurants to bring 4,300 meals to protests in D.C. and New York. With additional donated snacks and pastries, the organization fed more than 6,000 protesters. It also provided safety equipment and first aid kits to over 600 people and raised an additional $3,000 to donate to local social justice organizations.
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Fuel the People now has a team of 80 to 100 volunteers between the two cities and works with about 14 different BIPOC-owned restaurants, including Zenebech, Po Boy Jim, Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Sweet Lobby, Taste of Jamaica, and Souk in D.C. and Teranga, 99 Eats, Massawa, and Africana Kitchen in New York. Both Massaro and Joseph are quick to point out that these restaurants aren’t just supporting a movement, they’re part of it. “There are a lot of people who work in these restaurants, especially Black and brown people, who want to be out on the front lines protesting for justice,” says Massaro, “but in order to keep these restaurants going they have to barricade themselves off from mass exposure in order to be able to prepare meals.”
“A lot of the top chefs in this country and especially in New York City, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, fled to their upstate houses,” notes Joseph, a Harlem native who grew up frequenting Fuel the People partner restaurants Ponty Bistro and Seasoned Vegan. “But the people who own restaurants in these communities are part of the communities. They’re still here taking care of the people. Ponty Bistro was giving out free food to community members and hospital workers in Harlem when everything was just starting with coronavirus
Working with local restaurants allows Fuel the People to not only spotlight the Black chefs and other chefs of color, but also to celebrate the different Black culinary traditions that are prominent in the two cities. “It’s really interesting to look at what communities look like in D.C. versus New York,” says Massaro. “There’s a large Haitian community in New York, so [the New York chapter] partnered with Lakou Cafe, which provided a bunch of Haitian patties. In D.C., there’s a huge Ethiopian community, the largest in the world outside of Ethiopia, so rather than patties we got sambusas from Habesha Market.”
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Just as the food is unique in Fuel the People’s two locations, so are the protests. According to Massaro, D.C.’s protests tend to be more stationary; they usually end up in front of the White House, at the Lincoln Memorial, or on the National Mall, all historically significant sites of protest. In contrast, New York protests usually aren’t centralized and move fast.
Fuel the People also supports smaller events put on by community members. As a result, the coalition is often present at multiple protests, rallys, and vigils in a day, especially in New York. “We usually do maybe two protests in Manhattan, we’ll do one in Harlem, and then we’ll go to Washington Square or Midtown on the same day,” says Joseph. On the same Sunday that a team of New York volunteers set up a table at the 15,000-strong March for Black Trans Lives, another team brought food to a 5k run that raised money for the Help for Fordham Small Businesses fund at Van Cortland Park.
In addition to meals and snacks, Fuel the People also brings masks, gloves, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer to each event to help keep attendees safe. Massaro, who was teargassed at a recent protest, also put together protest care packages with hand sanitizer, hand wipes, face wipes, and spray bottles with baking soda and water (to relieve the effects of tear gas). And while the energy of the protests has changed in the past week, it can’t hurt to be safe. “A lot of people are new and are joining these protests and just don’t even know what sort of safety equipment would be helpful to bring,” she says, “so we’re trying to provide that for people as well.”
“Water goes super super quickly,” says Joseph, “especially as it’s getting hot outside and people are standing in the sun. Water is the number one thing that people donate if they can.”
Fuel the People launched its official website this past week, which is making it easier for Massaro and Joseph to connect with potential partner organizations and volunteers and to receive donations. And the coalition remains committed to fueling community members, not just large groups of activists, as the protests evolve and begin to sustain themselves. The chapters are currently gearing up for Juneteenth protests, marches, and rallies in their respective cities this Friday. “[They’re] going to be different than any of the ones we’ve supported in New York or D.C. for the past few weeks because there’s a huge celebratory component of this,” says Massaro. “It is a holiday.”
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