By Leon Suseran
The Caribbean Equality Project (CEP) has played a vital role in combating food insecurity in Caribbean-centric neighborhoods in New York City. For the past two years, CEP shifted its organizing to meet the emerging needs of the community, especially Caribbean LGBTQ+ immigrants, Afro and Indo-Caribbeans, and in general, Caribbean Americans.
The Queens-based grassroots community organization’s work has ensured the community had all the essentials to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. The West Indian recently spoke with Mohamed Q Amin, Founder and Executive Director, who outlined the organization’s two-year running Food Justice program during the pandemic.
Amin posited that food insecurity existed long before the pandemic in NYC, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the crisis, affecting already vulnerable people of various socioeconomic standing, race, and immigration status.
“COVID 19 and its economic crises are disproportionately affecting Indo-Caribbean, Black, South Asian and Latinx communities, such as Flatbush in Brooklyn, Castle Hill, Soundview (in the Bronx), and Richmond Hill (Little Guyana).
“To create nutritious and healthy food access, we first needed to make sure that our pop-up pantries were culturally congruent, as we serve our community with love and compassion while protecting their dignity. Amin said that “there is a lot of inherent transplanted cultural shame attached to standing in food pantry lines.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw how other groups shared humiliating photos of people receiving food, which amplified the stigma of Guyanese, Trinidadian and Jamaican people waiting in lines for food in America. The comments on social media were heartbreaking, but we were more concerned about protecting our vulnerable community members,” said Amin. The Caribbean Equality Project added a no videos or photos disclaimer on its flyers for their food distributions to build community trust and guarantee safety. He said, “we wanted to create a safe and affirming experience for impacted community members to access culturally-responsive grocery and fresh produce as we fight food insecurity in NYC.”
Like many New Yorkers, the undocumented population, LGBTQ+ people, and asylum-seeking community were among the first essential workers to have lost their jobs. Amin said, “excluded undocumented LGBTQ+ workers did not qualify for financial support or aid from the government such as unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.”
To support the Caribbean LGBTQ+ population in NYC, the Caribbean Equality Project started a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to provide mutual aid to those that lost their jobs and were on the verge of losing their homes. The organization has distributed an astounding $70,000 to over 300+ people in financial relief to date, mainly to undocumented LGBTQ+ immigrants, asylum seekers, sex workers, and queer families. Small grants to community members ranged between $100-$300 and covered basics such as rents, metro cards, food, medical bills, and utilities. To address its community’s social isolation and emotional wellness, CEP transitioned its monthly “Unchained” support group into a bi-monthly virtual space to continue providing networks of support and community building. The program transformation created a global outlet to engage LGBTQ+ people in the Caribbean diasporas.
In 2020, as Federal, State, and City elected officials were grappling with setting up COVID-19 testing sites and vaccine solutions, the country was also in the middle of its 2020 Census population survey. The Caribbean Equality Project’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Food Justice program also became a civically engaged conduit to count South Asian, Indo-Caribbean, Black, and Latinx New Yorkers. “To ensure Caribbean LGBTQ+ people and immigrant families participated in the 2020 Census, we launched a culturally-relevant educational campaign, hosted workshops, and conducted street canvassing amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, reaching more than 35,000 Caribbean families through food pantries, street outreaches, digital marketing, virtual events, and text and phone banking,” said Amin.
During the 2021 holiday season, Caribbean Equality Project reached out to community partners such as Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, Assembly Member Khaleel Anderson, South Queens Women’s March, New York Communities for Change- Flatbush Chapter, Flatbush Mixtape, District Leader Richard David, Councilwoman Rita Joseph, and local community leaders in the Bronx like Ramdat Singh, Councilwoman Amanda Farias, and Assembly Member Kenny Burgos to execute what was referred to as the “Tri-Borough Holiday Food and Essentials Distribution” series.
Amin stated that “one of CEP’s leading partners in carrying out its mission is The Campaign Against Hunger, whose Board Member Annie Mohan worked tirelessly to secure the necessary culturally-responsive foods and fresh produce.”
“In 2020, the first iteration of Caribbean Equality Project’s holiday pantry series served over 1,700 families, approximately 5,900 people in three boroughs by distributing hundreds of toys and thousands of pounds of food,” Amin said.
“In 2021, we continued running our food justice program to ensure our community receives the life-saving resources they needed to navigate the ongoing and evolving COVID-19 pandemic. We continued to center community care to keep our marginalized communities safe and protected through resource mobilization and love. We organized 14 culturally-responsive hyper-local pop-up pantries and served over 6,300 families… that’s 31,500 people —many of whom are documented and undocumented low-income Afro and Indo-Caribbeans, South Asians, and Latinx immigrants, including LGBTQ+ people, seniors, homeless and HIV-impacted people. Our tri-borough pantry series served 1,100 families and approximately 5,500 people. We distributed over 1,200 oral hygiene care packages, 1,200 masks and sanitizer packages, and 1,200 safe sex kits, as well as over 1,700 toys, school supplies, and children’s books.”
I experienced first-hand how beautifully organized the Caribbean Equality Project’s pop-up pantries are during my visit to the holiday distribution in Little Guyana. The pantries were marketed as a “food distribution,” but I witnessed an empowering community health fair. Volunteers welcomed community members with warmth and smiles hidden by masks to keep them safe. From making COVID vaccine appointments and sharing mental health, rent relief, and health insurance resources to distributing period and sexual health products, leaders were indeed on the frontlines providing essential information to the 350+ people in attendance.
The organization has recently been doing COVID-19 vaccine outreach at schools and calling community members to help make their booster shot appointments, an effort made possible by the Asian American Federation and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “We are keeping in touch with families by texting and calling them to ensure they have the resources they need,” he said.
He related stories of community members, including an Indo-Caribbean senior, who attended the distribution held at the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Community Center in The Bronx. She described to him how she used to stand in line for food in Guyana back in the 60s and thought she would never have to do the same in America.
“This aunty was so happy telling this story. There was no shame, no sadness, no despair— but in a moment of pure joy for her, just seeing her Guyanese people giving back to their community during the holidays.”
Amin continued by saying, “we don’t define our food justice work as charity, it’s solidarity. This work is physically and emotionally exhausting. A lot of labor, love, time, and energy goes into planning these pop-up pantries, but we do it because it makes our community more resilient. When our community is experiencing hunger, sadness, and hopelessness, we fail to preserve humanity. These impacted community members are our families, friends, neighbors, and volunteers, and we are supporting our loved ones through mutual aid relief. In this era of uncertainty, immense grief, and loss, we must love and protect each other. That is what solidarity organizing is all about. Food justice is an act of resistance to systemic economic injustices against Black and Browm immigrant communities in NYC.”
The immigrant rights activist said, “through community partnerships, we share information with families impacted by threats of eviction, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and substance abuse. Our pantries provide opportunities for rent-burdened LGBTQ+ people, women, and single-parent households, who experience landlord harassment, to access New York State eviction moratorium resources. There is a direct correlation between politically disenfranchised communities and food insecurity. We empowered eligible community members to participate in the 2021 primary and general elections by integrating civic engagement such as voter registration and education at our pantries.
Voting is a powerful demonstration of building political power and an act of defiance against those working to dilute our voices at all levels of government.”
Amin expressed thanks to the 80+ volunteers, community partners, and elected officials that have stood with the CEP over the past two years. He also mentioned Apicha Community Health Center, Metroplus Health Plan, Brooklyn Public Library, New York Common Pantry, Phipps Neighborhoods, Bronx Bound Books, and Urban Health Plan, all of which contributed to the success of the organization’s 2021 remarkable accomplishments.
“The Caribbean Equality Project’s volunteer-led food justice program continues in 2022,” Amin said. “We are grateful for our community partners’ continued support and commitment to solidarity food justice organizing as we work together to emerge from the pandemic a more resilient New York City.”
To learn more about the Caribbean Equality Project, visit www.CaribbeanEqualityProject.org. For regular updates on the organization’s work, connect with them on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram at @CaribbeanEqualityProject and Twitter @CaribEquality.