Grabbing sustenance from the People’s Bodega | Jaya Saxena
The People’s Bodega is a traveling food and necessities pantry providing protesters with the fuel they need to keep going
Over the past month, mass protests calling for the abolition of police and a national reckoning with anti-Blackness have spread across the country. In that time, various volunteers and organizations have risen to the challenge of feeding those on the frontlines, like the Sikh gurdwaras serving dal to hospital workers and protesters, or the good samaritans, unaffiliated with any organization, handing out snacks at marches. And then there’s the People’s Bodega, a mutual aid organization that considers the needs of the community and packs them into a van.
The People’s Bodega is, essentially, a traveling food and necessities pantry. In New York and LA, it caters to protests, its vans driving to different parts of a march to make sure everyone is served. Though the People’s Bodega began in LA, the word “bodega” has a distinctly New York (specifically Nuyorican) feel. The bodega is your neighborhood spot where you know the person behind the counter; it’s the center of your community, even if that community is just your block. You can be fed there, yes, but also pick up first-aid supplies, housewares, phone cards, or any other small things you need to live your day-to-day life. The People’s Bodega takes that concept and brings it to the protests, supplying water, sports drinks, and snacks alongside hand sanitizer, sunscreen, condoms, and tampons (plus, if you feel like hopping in the back of the van, a place to change your tampon). But unlike your neighborhood convenience store, everything is free.
On June 28, the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I rode with the People’s Bodega to serve New York’s Queer Liberation March. Organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition, the march was “for Black lives and against police brutality.” Thousands gathered in glitter, leather, and shirts reading “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.” The People’s Bodega set up two tables in Manhattan’s Foley Square, where the march began. It was 1 p.m. and people were hungry and thirsty, everyone aware of the fact that they’d need to be full and hydrated as they marched in the 88-degree heat. The provisions the People’s Bodega supplies are calibrated for a marcher’s needs — enough food and water to keep you going, but never too much to slow you down.
Making its way to Washington Square Park, the march took a slightly circuitous route to avoid police presence. The People’s Bodega volunteers packed into two vans and tracked the movement on their phones, weaving through the streets of downtown Manhattan to meet up with the march halfway through its route. In the back of the van, towers of water shifted and teetered with each turn. Chloe, one of the organizers, emphasized to me that all the supplies have been donated: Even though the volunteers put out calls for specific staples on Instagram, they’re not always in control of what they get.
That day, they estimated they’d give out about 1,600 bottles of water, as well as plenty of Nature Valley and Nutrigrain bars, but also fruit snacks, lollipops, a box of store-brand Graham crackers, and some coveted packets of Oreos and Nutter Butters. There were a few cases of day-camp favorite Little Hug, those neon-colored fruit drinks that come in barrel-shaped bottles. Sometimes, people drop off homemade sandwiches or whole pizzas, though that’s rare. Some items are always around: “Kind bars,” Chloe says, “are the food of the revolution.”
It was hard to convince people that the supplies were free. But on a sweltering day when people had already marched for a mile, the organizers at the People’s Bodega pushed cold water and sports drinks, granola bars and clementines and fruit snacks, repeating again and again that these items cost nothing until people were convinced. Yes, at least in this instance, these basic human needs cost nothing.
Once the confusion over cost (or lack thereof) is settled, the demonstrators are typically thrilled and grateful. Once the march caught up with us, the People’s Bodega volunteers ran in a constant loop from van to table, carrying pallets of water and Costco-brand sports drinks, which went so fast they never even made it into the cooler. Cries of “Thank you!” and “Oh my god, you’re angels!” emanated from the crowd, the humidity outside building to a storm that would erupt later that night. Everyone was drained, but at the sight of snacks, they turned giddy. Sugar and salt would keep them going.
Providing these essentials for free, whether it’s a single granola bar or dozens of breakfast sandwiches for the people occupying City Hall, is what Chloe believes mutual aid is all about: using what we have to make sure everyone gets what they need. “The point is avoiding the direct exchange of money for goods,” she said. When I ask if any of the food has come from restaurants or grocery stores to support the mission, she shakes her head. “All our donations come from people.” Sometimes the donations are food, and other times they’re in the form of monetary donations through PayPal.
The question hovering over the protests currently is: How long is this going to last? Right now, we’re in a perfect storm for public actions — mass unemployment and remote work allow more time for political organizing. The pandemic has kept people from most other social engagements while exposing many of the cracks in our society, from racism to the lack of a social safety net to the severe underfunding of public health and public education. But protest momentum is a hard thing to sustain, especially as states keep pushing the reopening of the economy. Will the People’s Bodega still be needed in a month?
Chloe emphasizes that it will remain in the struggle “until full abolition is achieved.” Currently, the group is planning for other forms of longevity as a mobile community center and food pantry. But part of their mission is to do everything they can to keep that protest momentum going. By providing food, water, and other necessities, the People’s Bodega is making the bar of entry to protesting as low as it can possibly be — you can show up without a mask, without sun protection, and hungry, and someone will take care of you. The food is fuel to keep you fighting.
Food media largely avoids the concept of “food as fuel.” I mean, is there anything so dreary? It evokes the unseasoned chicken breasts and steamed broccoli of gym rats, the calorie counting of diet culture, Soylent. In food media and “foodie” culture, food can and should be anything but fuel. It’s culture, it’s history, it’s a way to share tradition and heritage, it’s something to bond over, it’s a lens through which… well, you know the rest.
But for the People’s Bodega, food is fuel. That’s precisely its glory.
After the march passed, the van made its way to Washington Square Park. Later that day, police pepper-sprayed the crowd just as Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that the city “celebrates the Black, trans activists who built the movement and continue to lead today.” But before that, as the van arrived at the park, the marchers were still exuberant, many of them fortified by the sustenance provided by the People’s Bodega. A volunteer ran out for ice. Another offered to cart water around the park to those who may have missed the table. They apologized to marchers for running out of sports drinks, but displayed every Kind bar and box of raisins they had left. I watched as people bonded, sucking on Fruit by the Foot, comparing Dum Dum flavors, and feeding their friends and partners nuts and candy. The food may be fuel, but by the act of giving it away and the power of mutual aid, it is transformed. Here, a pack of peanuts is love. A Gatorade is solidarity. A free Kind bar is the sign that we’re all in this fight together.
In the following days, the People’s Bodega organizers restock and replan, coordinating donation pickups and Costco runs. They will be at the next march, electrolytes in hand, to fuel the revolution.