When COVID-19 hit and public schools shut down in March 2020, Lashanna Williams knew she had to do something to make sure the kids in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood were being nourished.
She started making breakfast for local kids, making sure everyone would stay well fed and could carry the food home.
“I started to make breakfast for local humans who really depended on breakfast at school, so I started cooking and people started donating money,” says Williams, who notes that waffles were a big hit.
“Any vehicle for butter and syrup: waffles, pancakes. That’s what they wanted,” she says, laughing. (Eventually, she made the to-go breakfasts using space offered at Resistencia Coffee, in the center of South Park.)
This initial effort led to the idea of setting up food sharing in the close-knit, friendly one-square-mile community, often cited as Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood.
The idea was to establish mutual aid stations: food, outside on tables and in cabinets and sheds and available for anyone – from the neighborhood or not – who was hungry or needed food. No questions asked.
“We gathered about five different neighbors in different areas of South Park to host a mutual aid food station,” Williams says.
Two of the stations eventually added fridges outside, all stocked up, so the community could share perishables like fresh produce.
South Park resident Shawna Murphy started the station outside her house as the food-sharing idea was first blossoming.
“It started out so modestly. I literally had a little red folding table … and put it on the sidewalk, and I think the first thing I put out was a plate of apple,” says Murphy. “It just really caught on and people started bringing us things.
“At that time, you couldn’t go into the food bank to choose your food,” says Murphy, who lives close to a food bank. “You were just basically getting a box.”
Because people didn’t necessarily want all the items in the prepackaged boxes, whether for cultural or personal preference reasons, Murphy found that the mutual aid stations would get big additions of food on the food bank’s box pickup days: “People were using our sites almost as food recycling.
“It just kept growing and growing!”
As people found out about the stations on social media and through friends, food and money donations poured in, helping the community keep the areas stocked. And there was a nice festive surprise when Murphy received donations from friends outside the neighborhood so that she could fill up the food-sharing shed with boxes of hot pizza on Christmas Eve.
At the mutual aid stations, there wasn’t just food but also hygiene supplies. Murphy says her own kids helped a lot with running errands and assembling period packs. “Kids from their schools ended up collecting and bringing things too,” she adds.
And she had a lot of eager assistance with food from the younger children she hosts in her home daycare program.
“Every day we would go out for about a half an hour,” says Murphy. “All the kids, you know, taking cans out, basically playing grocery store, and it was so fun.”
Williams’ focus is shifting to El Mercadito, a new local farmers market in South Park. Some vendors are offering food on a sliding scale, and there is a free food section too. Currently, there are two mutual aid stations still operating in South Park.
But Williams, who works as a death doula and massage therapist, says that ventures like the mutual aid stations aren’t about giving, which she points out has an inherent power dynamic. They’re about sharing.
“We worked really hard to be like, ‘Yo, if you eat food, this food is for you.’ ”
Does Williams have any advice for other communities that might want to set up mutual aid stations?
“Do it. Really, just do it,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you start with; when it’s there, people will start to use it, and just the normalization of us taking care of each other is important.”
She adds, “Kids in South Park will grow up, and they will never say once, ‘A mutual aid station? I’ve never seen one of those.’ That will be something that these humans grow up understanding happens when people need it.
“And that shifts things.”
Ways to get involved in food sharing
You can set up your own mutual aid station or bring food to the stations in South Park.
And there are many food banks where you can spend time making sure everyone gets enough food. (Kids can help, too.)
Food Lifeline: On-site volunteers can be age 10 and up. Locations throughout Seattle. Kids can host a virtual or canned food drive. foodlifeline.org
Northwest Harvest: Will accept kid volunteers who are 9 or older to help sort food. Kids can also host a virtual food drive. Multiple locations in the Seattle area. northwestharvest.org
University District Food Bank: Kids can volunteer starting at age 15 if accompanied by a parent or guardian. udistrictfoodbank.org
More in Pitch In: