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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cooks are nourishing protesters and a social movement by sending food to the front lines


In the crowds of protesters marching in all 50 states against police brutality targeting black Americans, you’ll find water to hydrate yourself in early summer heat, masks to shield from coronavirus exposure and plenty of hand sanitizer. Restaurants across the country from California to Washington, D.C., are preparing and handing out food to protesters as they walk by. And no matter where you are, you’ll likely see food that was made in someone’s home, packaged and ready to be passed around the crowd.

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If you’re in New York, that might mean a plant-based taco made by Rob Mazz. Mazz, an educator and photographer, spoke on the condition that The Post use his artist name instead of his given name because he is concerned about losing his job if he is identified. He can’t go to protests because he lives with people who are at a higher risk of contracting covid-19, and his job prevents him from attending demonstrations.

“I was just feeling helpless for a long time because I couldn’t figure out a way to participate in this,” says Mazz, 23. But then he heard about others sending food for jail support and realized he could cook for protesters, settling on tacos as easy to transport, cheap, filling and healthy.

He reached out to a few friends, rallied his housemates and put up an Instagram post; in just a few days, he says, they had raised around $5,000 in donations for groceries and direct donations to at-risk transgender people, set up a sanitary assembly line in their home (complete with gloves, masks and temperature checks), and found volunteers to drive, bike and walk tacos to hungry protesters from Brooklyn to the Bronx. So far, he estimates they’ve made around 3,000.

“Everything that’s going on is super serious, and we’ve all been very emotional about it,” says Mazz. “Being handed a very nourishing and healthy and flavorful taco by someone you may not know just provides moments of solidarity within everyone, from the person making it to the person handing it out, and then finally the person eating it.”

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In Brooklyn, freelance chef Kia Damon, 26, was just figuring out her career direction when coronavirus hit; then came the protests. “I had a moment where I was just like, what the hell can I do?” Damon has long been inspired by the late Georgia Gilmore, a cook and midwife who used her home kitchen to literally feed the civil rights movement of the 1960s and rallied other women to do the same, as well as the Black Panther Party’s free lunch program, so the answer came to her quickly. She and her girlfriend got groceries and made vegetable-packed sandwiches.

With a friend’s help, they biked them over to a protest. Damon describes recipients as initially apprehensive but appreciative.

“With work like this, it actually doesn’t feel good to be the only one,” she says. “It’s much more inspiring to see when other people are finding their own ways to do it.”

Damon saw granola bars, cookies, water and more being passed around as protesters reminded one another to eat and nourish themselves. “A lot of people are on autopilot,” says Damon. “You’re just so filled with rage that you forget to actually tap in to feed yourself.” So far, Damon and her girlfriend have made around 50 sandwiches.

In Los Angeles, freelance TV producers Michael Walker and Ellen Crilly are sending burritos and snack packs out to protesters. The couple pulled out their own groceries to figure out an accessible food they could make in their kitchen — burritos — and made a few that their friend offered to take to the protests. Then, they went to Costco to get more supplies. They set up an Instagram account, and in just a week they’ve received offers for help, monetary donations, grocery donations from restaurants and food made by others that runners pick up and take to protests.

“We built up a really cool network of people who just want to help,” says Walker, 29.

Walker and Crilly have received shout-outs on social media from people happy to receive a burrito out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd. “If we can give a little bit of happiness to the people doing the hard work on that front line of the protests, then that’s really special,” added Crilly, 28.

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Paola Velez and Willa Pellini, two D.C.-based pastry chefs, are taking a different tack. They wanted to mobilize people to join a virtual bake sale to benefit the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and small local organizations, so they started Bakers Against Racism. “There’s been a lot of home bakers making sourdoughs and making cakes and making banana breads, and I was like, you guys have been training for this occasion!” says Velez, 29, the acclaimed pastry chef of Kith and Kin. “What a beautiful way to take something that you learned because of a pandemic and then turn it on its head and bake against the machine.”

Pellini and Velez anticipated needing 80 bakers to make a difference, but that number grew quickly; Velez estimates that they’ve recruited around 2,000 bakers from all over the world, as far as Australia. They put together a list of resources for home cooks and furloughed pastry chefs to set up preorders to ensure nothing is wasted, account for allergens, record sales, arrange delivery or pickups to adhere to social-distancing guidelines, and even learn more about issues black Americans face with a list Pellini put together of podcasts for bakers to listen to while they bake. They suggested that contributors open up orders and have sales and drop-offs complete by June 20. One home baker, Velez says, raised $1,000 within 24 hours selling macarons.

Velez says she thinks the personal touch makes volunteers feel invested. “People were hungry to participate,” she says.

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In that same personal vein, Mazz and his housemates have made protest signs to go with the tacos, and they’re writing quotes from well-known black artists, educators and other prominent figures on the packaging.

None of these operations started from huge cash donations, structural support or even a large group of people.

“You don’t have to be a millionaire,” says Velez. She, Pellini and chef Rob Rubba bought a user domain, Rubba made graphics, and they were off. Velez accepted a $100 donation from a “lovingly insistent fan” to buy groceries and tins, but that’s it. “Any brands that reached out, I’ve just asked for social media spread. Which they could have done on their own.”

Damon has never cooked for a protest before, but she says that as a queer black woman, “it only makes sense to me to just follow suit in the way that the people before me have done.”

“Even if it’s just 50 sandwiches, and then someone else brings a pallet of snacks … and then someone else has a bunch of Kind Bars,” says Damon. “Even if it’s just a small amount of people, bringing what we can, you can reach so many people.”

Damon is thinking of what will happen when the protests end. “I don’t expect that to be anytime soon,” she says. “But I do know that the work continues, and it doesn’t stop.”

After an “overwhelming” number of people asked him for advice, Mazz says he is considering making a document teaching people how to start their own prep kitchen to help feed the protesters. “You don’t have to be on the front lines if you support everything that’s going on,” he says. “Whether that be donation, cooking, making signs, calling your representatives, sending emails, just get involved in any way that you can and just make sure that you’re safe.”