How is it possible that food scarcity exists in the richest nation in the history of the world? That’s what Thoai Nguyen wants to know.
“We accept this notion of scarcity,” said the CEO of SEAMAAC, an immigrants and refugees-rights organization based in South Philly. “It’s a constructed ideology to get [poor] people to accept their poverty or their generational poverty. It should be unacceptable to everybody.”
Nguyen’s passion runs deep. That’s why his organization puts its money where its mouth is. Not only its money, in fact, but its manpower. That’s because just last week SEAMAAC and its volunteers were tapped by the Step Up to the Plate initiative, a program that brings together caterers, nonprofits and funders to create temporary food service sites around Philadelphia serving meals to people in need, to run its latest location out front of Francis Scott Key School at 8th and Jackson. The organization gives out 1,000 meals per day in front of the school.
The initiative’s other partners include Broad Street Ministry, Project HOME and Prevention Point Philadelphia. Until last week, Step Up had only two locations – one in Kensington and another in Center City. The Key School location is the third.
In the first four weeks of the program at the Kensington and Center City locations, the initiative provided more than 60,000 meals to people in need.
“The immigrant population in South Philadelphia has been hit tremendously hard not only by the health crisis caused by COVID-19, but by the resulting economic and hunger crises,” said Mike Dahl, executive director of Broad Street Ministry. “This area of the city has traditionally been underserved as well as challenging to work in, given the approximately 18 ethnic groups who call South Philly home. We were so fortunate that SEAMAAC, one of the oldest and most respected refugee-founded agencies in the area, raised their hand to lead Step Up to the Plate in the neighborhood.”
Dahl added that SEAMAAC’s participation brings “immediate legitimacy and trustworthiness to the effort.”
In a big city like Philadelphia, there’s no shortage of organizations dedicated to feeding the under-resourced. In South Philly alone, there’s St. Gabriel’s Food Cupboard, The Bethesda Project, Philabundance and even the city’s Office of Homeless Services’s effort to give away free, nutritious food during the pandemic all over the city.
But there’s something different about SEAMAAC. For starters, Nguyen doesn’t see feeding under-resourced people as charity work.
“We see issues of hunger and food insecurity as a social justice,” he told SPR. “We’re not doing this out of charity.”
Nguyen knows that people don’t necessarily go without food just because they’re less fortunate. There’s a system that keeps them that way.
“There are external forces that keep families in generational poverty, which primarily affect people of color, but also Caucasians,” he said. “At a time like this, those issues should be front and center.”
Nguyen calls his outlook on inequality “progressive” and “radical.” But when he says radical, he doesn’t mean it in a way that’s analogous with extreme.
“In Latin, radical means ‘root,’ ” Nguyen explained. “When I say ‘radical,’ I mean it’s the fundamental issue of our present issue of injustice and inequity I’m talking about.”
He continued: “Some people would look at this as an act of charity and that’s fine,” he said, “but I think there is something fundamentally wrong with our society. The inequity that was there before was magnified 100 times because of the pandemic. The poverty we have in the city should be unacceptable.”
Over and over again, he’s heard the phrase “we’re all in this together” in regard to the pandemic. He begs to differ.
“I’ve heard this expressed many times over and too glibly that we’re all in this together,” he said. “I have to disagree. We are not in this together. People in privilege who live in luxury have hoarded food and supplies. These are upper-middle-class people who have been hiding in their homes and still get a paycheck.”
Nguyen understands people don’t want to leave the house for the sake of their health, but all too often he gets the feeling that more can be done from those who are privileged enough to be able to stay inside.
“There are people who [talk] about selfcare, and they’re all upper-middle-class privileged white people – they’re doing f****** yoga, they’re taking three-hour baths,” he said, resentfully. “How the hell do you live with yourself? How is this selfcare when people are dying and going hungry? It just enrages me. I don’t want to be self-righteous, but we should all have righteous indignation with this situation.”
Dahl told SPR that there’s been a noticeable increase in food insecurity since the beginning of the pandemic, at least as far as the demand for food he’s seen at Step Up to the Plate’s food giveaway sites.
“If you talk to people in outreach in the city, we’re all observing this huge increase in food insecurity,” he said.
For this reason, Step Up to the Plate does its best to make sure the meals are healthy and nutritious.
“We believe that everyone is our guest and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and we should roll out our best for them,” he said. “We’re all focused on the quality of the meals because we want this to be a gracious moment for people when they get the meal.”
That includes, he said, making sure the meals have two meals worth of calories in them. So it’s really like two meals in one.
“We try to make them two entrees because you don’t want people to run around from spot to spot during the day,” said Dahl.
To date, the program has secured $1.9 million in funding, Dahl said, which is way more than everybody expected. As a result, they hope to extend the meals until August.
The initiative is hoping to engage more with local caterers and restaurants in South Philly. That way, not only are they helping support people who suffer from food insecurity, but small businesses, too. Currently, Dahl said, it’s in talks with two Passyunk Square-based Mexican restaurants, Tamalex and Adelita.
What made SEAMAAC the perfect partner, Dahl said, is that the organization knew the community well and had the resources to get the word out in multiple languages.
“South Philly is rich with so many different immigrants and because of so many working-class people who have been hit hard by the economic and health crisis,” he said. “I am just incredibly grateful for SEAMAAC’s leadership in getting the site up and running and doing it in such a gracious way.”
While the response to help has, in Nguyen’s eyes, been inadequate from some who come from the world of designer yoga pants and frilly bath bombs, he takes pride in knowing that he’s part of a community that stops at nothing to help its fellow neighbor.
“Now that the pandemic has hit, there are a lot of immigrant families that are actually hungry and experiencing deep, deep poverty and food insecurity,” he said. “Those are the people who are in this together with me.”