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October 8, 2021 33 mins

We talk to organizer Melissa Acedera about her experience with Polo's Pantry, Home-y Made Meals, food justice, and the difference between charity and mutual aid.

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
Well that wasn't very good. I'm Robert Evans, host of
the podcast you're listening to, and ashamed of, probably because
that was Jesus Christ. Garrison. Come in here, fix this,
Fix this Garrison. Um, this is it could happen here
a podcast about the fact that the world was folding apart,

as embodied by me falling apart. When I try to
introduce the show, see I tied it in. Yeah, A
good job, thank you, thank you. Well it is it is.
It has to rhyme. It's like it's like the Star
Wars movies. YEA. Our guest today is Melissa sidera founder
and director of Polo's Pantry, a mutual aid food distribution

project in Los Angeles, California. A. Melissa, thank you for
coming on and talking to us. Thank you so much
for inviting me. I'm pleasure to be here. I apologize
for the introduction, but I honestly it's better. It was
better than I usually do, so if you can back
that up. Okay. So I'm an l A native, and um,

I've been doing community organizing for probably like close to
a decade, doing a lot of community work for a
long time, and a few years before the pandemic. Actually,
I started to organize with a lot of grassroots organizations
in l A, working with a lot of houseless folks
UM all over l A, and kind of clock pretty

early that a lot, you know, a lot of a
lot of groups were burning through their budgets spending it
on food. And so since I worked in kind of
the food industry, I started to kind of poke around
and figure out that we could get a lot of
these things donated to us UM and pretty much started

building a roster like building, kind of like a rulodex
of UM other organizations, non profits, UM, food banks that
we could rely on. So almost kind of created sort
of like an Alphian system UM for these groups who
are working with houseless folks to get food every week. UM.

I just wanted to figure out a way to make
a steady and reliable system so that our own house
neighbors would get food and that organizers across l A
wouldn't have to worry about it. And so that's pretty
much how POLO started. Officially started in two thousand eighteen.
I was organizing with a group called Katon for All

and UH. They do a lot of political advocacy and
mostly rooted in like, um, kind of you know, human
rights for our houses, neighbors. If you don't know Katon
for all, look them up. They're awesome, follow them fantastic Adan. Yeah,
And you know, I actually was because I was already

doing a lot of mutual aid work in skid Row
around that time and really kind of felt at some point,
um that you know, like, yes, it was great that
I was going out there with teams getting hot meals
out and hot beverages whatever people needed to people, but
I just was so down on what the conditions, seeing

all the conditions that they were living in, and I
just wanted to meet other activists and other folks um
who could really figure out how you connect people to
services and and just really you know, anyone working in policy.
That's so that's really changing things for people out there.
And so I wanted to take sort of my advocacy
and like my work a step further and connected with

activists all the rail day. So that's sort of like
my organs really rooted a lot of activism and organizing.
So I see I see a lot of I'm not
sort of your standard kind of or nonprofit I really
see things in the lens and as a community organizer,
and so that's why our our work pretty much exploded

during COVID. I'm kind of interested for for starters because
you're you're you know, this is um a mutual aid
project as opposed to kind of a charity project, and
what do you what do you see as being the
dividing line there? Well, for you know, for a lot
of for us, you know, it's very easy for for
folks to kind of see the work that we do

as part of the kind of charitable food system because
obviously we're you know, UM mutual aid. It's the difference
really is that obviously, UM, you know, there there's a
there's a reciprocity between the two of you, UM, between
between neighborhoods, between individuals, between organizations of sharing resources with

each other. UM and charitable obviously is a it's only
one way, right, there's only like one person giving. But
for us, UM, the way we picked our partners, I mean,
we're we are ready part of this nucleus of kind
of a coalition of or doing this work. So it

was just ready very easy for us to kind of
share resources with each other. So I was doing food
and some folks were doing hygiene kits, other folks were
doing tents, other folks were doing tarps or whatever, and
so there was so much you know, kind of mutualid
and activity going on. And so that that's why we're
we're really kind of rooted in that UM and that

thinking as far as as opposed to charitable ors that
basically just set up somewhere and give, you know, give
give stuff out to people. And so we have look
a part and part of my advisory circle are a
lot of houseless neighbors UM houses leaders in our community. UM.

I also take a lot of advice from UM Indigenous
organizers UM black community leaders in different neighborhoods that we
work in. So our work is really informed by the community.
And so we basically asked folks, hey, you know, like
what can we do UM and plug into to work
that UM that already exists in those in those areas.

I hope, I hope that means sense. But that's kind
of how I feel about what we do. And and
as an as an organizer, because I think we get
a lot of questions from people who are interested in
starting mutual aid projects in their own areas, and one
of the questions we often have it is like well
how do I how do I do that? Right? UM?
And Yeah, I'm interested in like like if you could

kind of walk us through the steps when when Polo's
pantry got started, Like what is what was the kind
of order of operations that you had to go through
to get this this up and running. I think the
first thing to do is really too For me, it
was already kind of being part of grassroots UM or
so I was part of a few of them UM
and so it's really important to UM to kind of

identify the needs of a community first before setting up
your organ So I feel like I already had an
idea of you know, of of what certain orcs needed,
UM which areas, how many and so kind of identifying
the needs first kind of UM number one and and
and to do that you really have to connect with

grassroots organizations, local ones in your area. So you know,
I recommend really just kind of doing researchers. Always folks
doing that kind of stuff all over. If you're into
political advocacy, there's folks that do that. There are folks
who are more food justice oriented, Like I would recommend
going to a local food bank or soup kitchens to

have also, Like I've been doing that for years and
I've met a lot of people with kind of similar
values mine. UM. So just kind of pretty much identif
fin one, what you'd like to do, what you're good
at UM, and then essentially research UM, you know, kind
of opportunities to tap into a local organ doing that

work and then essentially start organizing with them. Right. I
don't I don't recommend to build like to build an
order prior to not having this kind of knowledge, because
I feel like it's really crucial to sort of kind
of map out first what the community needs instead of
you building mutual aid organization based on you know whatever,

because I feel like it's it's important to work through
things from the ground up. UM. That way, you feel
like the work is impactful. That way, the community is
leading and informing your work. And so that's that's kind
of like how I I approached the line. So look
for a local organ so kind of sit and organizing

for a little bit and then him there once he
once you guys identify what it is UM and start
to kind of have an idea of of the demand
or the need in that area, then start to reach
out to say for me, for for food. A lot
of local, um, local chains will weill we'll pretty much

if you if you tell them what you're doing, um,
a lot of them will support you. So I actually have.
I started with just going literally to my local Ralphs
and telling the manager. They're like, hey, this is what
I'm doing. I'm starting this or you know, wasn't Ralph's
being a local grocery store in Likes Angeles area. A
lot of I didn't know what Ralph's was before I

moved to l A. So I just wanted to be like,
she's not just like rolling over to where buddy Ralph's house, like, yes,
you got some food? Yeah? Sorry, yeah, so that Ralph's
out here in l A. So most places, yeah yeah
yeah I will. More folks said, not everyone is down
for that kind of stuff, but somehow you'll you'll really
end up on one that's really you know, that is

really unkind. I think most folks have to realize that
this this this kind of work is not it didn't
happen overnight like building like building uh, you know, like
a reliable network of people to donate to you is.
It takes time. So but I think if if you
hit kind of larger chains, you will get UM, you know,

you'll you'll you'll get you'll start to get a steady
supply from them. Do you have any kind of advice
for um, when you're actually approaching you know, manager at
a Ralphs or something, somebody who works for Like, what

do you have like I don't know, like a script,
but kind of a rough guy to like, Here's how
I try to start these conversations. Here's some ways I
try to phrase for things, because that could be useful
for folks. You know, I actually have like a form
letters I could share later maybe you can, right, yeah, great,
UM that you know that they can use to um,
you know, if they're if they're going to UM solicit

folks with that stuff. And I think a lot of
mutual aid organizations to have that kind of UM kind
of literature, that kind of form so UM, I think
just basically kind of letting them know who you are,
who you're serving, UM, how often which demographic is going
to that's usually really important. UM. What what helped me though,

was I was as I started to get more serious
about about doing the food work, I connected to you know,
some some community partners and I actually UM turned Polos
into a fiscally sponsored org so we moved from being
just fully grassroots to being fiscally sponsored. That basically means
we're operating under the five O one C three number

of another organization of a larger organization. So that that
was that open so so many opportunities for us. It
really allowed us to be able to access larger amounts
of food and really help out a lot of a
lot of a lot of smaller organs that needed to
get their food programs off the ground. And so UM

that is something I recommend if you're if people are
serious about it, to define a community of community partner
who who isn't established five and one C three that
they trust UM to see if they if they know
if they can sign on to to be a physical
sponsor UM. That I think is one of the quickest
ways to be able to UM to really kind of

establish yourself as as far as getting larger amounts of
food then and by that I mean getting pallets of food,
not just cases, but literally pallets of food delivered to
wherever you are. As soon as we did that, that
completely changed the game UM. And and I think I
did that because I knew I had so many friends

who were doing mutual aid that needed so, you know,
just so much stuff from from groceries to um, you know,
fresh produce, and it wasn't and it wasn't you know,
it didn't stop in food. We were getting you know,
hand sanitizer, we were getting tense, we were getting all
sorts of stuff, you know, and so um. So yeah,

that's what I recommend for folks were serious about food
is to really again start to build a relationship with
local businesses, um that they that they like food businesses
and really telling people this is what I'm doing. If
you're if you know, if you're if you're you know,
if you are, what support us, you know, like this

is um, you know, these are these are the days
that we need food or whatever, or these are the
times that we'll need food and just let them know
that you know, you're you're happy to pick it up
or that you're happy to because there's there's I think,
at least for California, we're starting to change law like
policy and law behind food waste, and so I think, um,

something's going to change. In the January of two where
a lot of food waste basically going to decrease because
it's going to be much more difficult. The city is
going to make it much more difficult for for businesses
to just get your stuff. UM. They're they're really pushing
them to UM to separate them. But anyway, regardless, you're

helping the business really UM move, you know, move food waste,
and and most of them and a lot of employees
too that I've talked to UM just you know, just
our heart work. And every time they have to clear
out you know, a full full tray or just trays
and trays of of of of a perfectly fine food.

So yeah, there's there's a video going viral on Twitter
right now of of like someone working at Dunking Donuts
and just like dumping display hundreds and hundreds of donuts
into the garbage. And then that happens. That happens every
single day. You know. I have I have friends who
used to work on Whole Foods and they would tell
me just just how heartbreaking it was, just the amount,

just the massive amount of that's being wasted. Yeah, it's evil,
it's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's it's a
thing that in the more difficult days ahead, as you know,
things like well like we under in a lot of areas,
like the crop was half of what it normally is
this year. That's going to continue. One day we will
look at videos of Duncan Donuts dropping an entire day's

worth of donuts into the trash and use it as
a pretext to bring executives to trial. And it's going
to be like like like a war crime. Yeah is
I mean, I mean, honestly though, as someone in food
um um, you know, like the food system is changing
massively in so many ways. I feel like the one
kind of good thing that happened in the pandemic is

that lawmakers were able to identify that the way snap
or or um cal fresh pretty much food stamps were
not enough really to um, you know, to feed families
and feed people. It's not nearly enough, though, but at
least it kind of pushes the needles where we need
where we needed to go um. And I think I think,

having having been so focused and so like in the
center of mutual aid work in l A, I'm able
to kind of broadly tell you know, tell um really
tell lawmakers too that hey, you know, there's so much um,
there's so much meat out there, but the community themselves
have built alternate food systems to be able to care

for themselves. I feel like my hope really is to
be able to have to kind of hyperlocalize our food
systems that way. Neighborhoods and really like communities are are
essentially dictating their own you know, their own needs. They're
they're basically bringing in the resources that they want. They're

bringing in the kind of food that they want, you know,
and um, and really just working towards the real kind
of food food sovereignty where people are able to to
get the resources themselves. And and for me, I feel
like mutual aid scares a lot of people because again
it really is the sort of like, um, the reason

why we were able to a lot of communities were
able to to survive COVID. You know, we're still doing
it and it's still ours so deep in it. And
and even like I try to tell students to and like,
you know, um, mutual aid isn't just food or whatever.
It's also like say your dad is a pickup truck

and your neighbor needs to move, I don't know their
dining room table across town. Like that is a form
of mutual aid UM or Like there's there's so many
things that especially a lot of immigrant communities that I
that I work with. This this form of care, community care,

you know, has existed forever, and it's just somehow elevated
itself during the pandemic because, as we know, the safety
net just wasn't enough. It didn't it didn't it really
didn't help me, you know, it didn't really help a
lot of communities, and so this system essentially kept people afloat.

And now we're trying to figure out how to really
create better ways to sustain it and to really create
better ways to get the resources directly to communities that
need them. So that's kind of where I'm at. I'm
working with other folks trying to figure out how to
how to keep the sustainable and really have more agency

over what kind of food and what kind of ad
you WoT. How have people that have been needing to
access mutualating the food, how have they been learning about
your organization? UM I think honestly, all this stuff really

happened by word of mouth. I think because I was
I was already part of this huge coalition UM that's
part of of the Sophie Knows a Cat for All.
There's a group called street Watch. There's a group called
crowd Game, There's a group called like There's there's all
these different folks that basically are in our wide coalition.
I haven't had to really advertise much like people just

sort of like just kept telling others like, hey, you know,
like Melissa and Polos and her team were doing this
and um. Also as a COVID response, I created another
um um uh like COVID initiative called Homemade Meals and
and that is the partnership with another organization called Yikes.

And so as of today, I think we're close to
seventy meals UM. That's all community lead. Yes, so we
so we this smart of UM. We essentially created a
system where we uh we work with people who are
who are cooking homade meals in their homes and connecting

them to drivers. And so we have about six different
UM organ partners. So one of them is obviously it's
the same people Kaytown, street Watch, Covenant House. They work
a lot with Homeless Youth um L a can or
in skid Row UM and a bunch of other mutual
aid groups in different areas of l A, so I

recognize UM. At the beginning of COVID, a lot of
my houseless neighbors were telling us that they were scared,
like because a lot of a lot of businesses were closing,
a lot of corner stores, restaurants, UM that the the
food access completely shut off for them during at the beginning,

and I started to freak out. I was like, how
we're going to get food to people? And so UM
some friends who run UM basically they weren't kind of
like a youth kind of youth focus or UM wanted
to activate their you know, activate their community. They're like, hey,
how can we help? What can we do? So we

created this program basically that you know, figure out like, okay,
well a lot of people want to have volunteer, but
they can't leave home, So why don't they cooked meals
at home? And then we'll just pair them with drivers
who can pick it up safely. And so we just
started doing that. We created this system too, and and
I think we honestly, I thought we were just gonna

do it for two months, but now we're what like,
in nineteen months later, seventy five thousand nails over a
thousand volunteers, like it's been wild. Actually, Jane Expert, she
would be angry if we didn't state that. So Jamie, UM,

Jamie actually is UM. It's one of our o G
like like cooks, Like she started with home and made
meals from the very beginning. UM, she's kind of one
of our That's kind of how we know her. UM.
It's because she found she found that program UM. And
it's been a while, it's been it's been so amazing
to to really activate so many people across l A

to cook for our houses neighbors. And so I haven't
even fully digested our team hasn't even fully digested that
the real impact of that. But it's been seting five
thousand meals UM made by the community for our for
our houses neighbors. So so so that's yeah, so that
I don't know, like I feel like and I truly

believe there's just so much just so much power and
the people and really trying to figure out ways to
continue to you know, to create UM better systems where
where we can redirect those resources you know, UM to

us and UM you know like really kind kind of
break down these systems where you know, because because even
people were telling me, like folks who are like, you know,
these sort of big institutions, food institutions have been around
for decades or even folks UM from like yeah, from
like running food dogs since the eighties were like, you know,

how are you able to move so fast? I'm like,
that's mutual aid. That's like, that's mutual aid. Then our
ability to not have to run through so much bureaucratic
crap and red tape is a reason why we were
able to, you know, to to to create such huge
impact because people believed in what we did and you

know and helped support us, funded us UM and we
essentially just you know, just hit the ground running. We're
able to figure out what people needed on the ground
and just just got it to them. That's what That's it,
you know, and we'll figure out if if we don't
have it, we're gonna keep you know, we'll ask around
for folks who have it. Like UM. There's a group

called SILA there. It's silver like UM and my friend
Kat who's one of the co founders. She they also
worked with with UM with Houseless Folks and they do
uh incredible work, like you know, providing showers providing hot meals,
providing UM referant services for folks. UM. She she was great,

I getting hygiene kits and so that's that was started
me to wil between each other. Like she needed hot meals,
so I gave that to her on Saturdays, and then
I needed like hygiene kits, and so that's kind of
like the basis, yeah, exactly, like I literally will give
her two hundred meals, She'll give me two hundred hydging kids.
And that was like that throughout the pandemic, Like we
just would share resources and people thought we were this

huge org, but essentially it was just you know, literally
like we're friends and I talking to each other like hey,
what do you have today? What do they have coming
in today? And we just essentially kind of built this
sort of cloud like sort of inventory. Right, so it's
like Polos has a thousand meals and like Seela's got

five hundred Hygian kids, and like you know, street Watch
as like fifty tents and like a hundred tarps. So
it's like we all were like, hey, you know, there's
there's a houseless man on the corner of like Sunset
or whatever that needs like blah blah, blah, and so
we essentially just you know, just grab and go like

Poles has meals and like street Watch has tents, like
Kate Towns got like the tarps. So y'all just again
beautifully just sort of started to like build this sort
of sort of out like inventory of stuff and it
just worked and it's still working. So um and it's consistent,

Like is what what we're bringing up or at the
beginning is talking about how consistent you're able to you're
able to have done this work, which is if you're
an l A resident, you know that you know the
city's support is never consistent, so having that consistency is
so vital. Yes, yeah, I'm not thank you. And it's

it's a lot of hard work, just so much that
people don't see. Obviously, there's so many, so many things
that people don't see. There's a lot of organizing behind it,
just literally a lot of community building, a lot of meetings. Yeah,
I think that again, like the bulk of mutual aid
is relationships and trust, you know, like that that's that's
really it. That's how you breathe life into your system.

And it's like, you know, you have to have you
have to continue to like nourish relationships, you know, between
yourself and other organizers, between yourself if you're running an
order between yourself and another organ UM. And and really
that's how we've been able to, you know, to to
reach so many people, is because we focused on making

sure but you know, UM, it's so easy to to
burn out in this work. But again, we also have
to make sure that we take care of each other, UM.
And we focused on making sure that we're checking on
each other two and so I you know, it's it's
hard to fully explain what how to even teach that

you know, how to how to how to properly relationships,
but I feel like that's that's such a key part
of creating a really robust mutual aid network. UM. And
that's at least the experience that we had youse. Yeah,
were the work that you've done and what you've been
able to accomplish is very impressive and is something that

people a lot of people can aspire to. UM. Is
there any like resources online that you can point to
if someone's wanting to get into this type of work, UM,
or any any like any kind of like advice to
get started in your own city or to like look
for stuff that's doing this similar that that's like that's
doing a similar thing. Um uh wow, let's see who

has um gosh, that's a really really really good question. Um. Well, well,
first I hope that people have read Mutual Aid by
Dean Spade. Um. Sure, that's a really good book. Um.
And and from there I would read I would read
The Black Panthers Social Programs. I got a lot of

I got a lot of my um my inspiration from there. Um.
And really that's that's really those those two things to
kind of start as just sort of like your um,
your primers um. And then if you want to kind
of get deeper into food Justice, um uh, they're's a
really good book. Are you get ready? Years ago it's

almost I think it's literally called food Justice one on one. Okay,
let me see it's really called it rely call food
Justice one on one. Yeah, there's there's quite a few,
but but one that's one, and then there's another there's
a one book um I read called More Than Just
Food um. And then it's it's pretty by Yeah. I'll

give you guys my top five and that really canna
helps sort of um like shape my thinking. You're on
food justice. So that's it's written by a guy named
Garrett Broad and he essentially like kind of lays out
sort of how the industrial food system kind of created
this huge crisis that we're in, and you know, like
how there's there's really kind of an abundance of food everywhere,

but obviously it's gettributed, yes exactly, and so and and
and also kind of lays out how food justice you
know activists UM who are in mostly low income communities
of color help really build community based kind of solutions
to these problems. And so that's really kind of where
my thinking and my my lens comes from is because

I am a child of l A, I'm able to
understand what different neighborhoods need UM based on because I
either grew up there, work there, have family there, you know,
what's school there, or just have friends or other organizers
who live there. And so say, if you know, I,
I didn't grow up in Ball Heights, but I have

friends who did. And so like, if I'm trying to
build out a food program or mutual aid program and
Ball Heights, I'm not going to just walk in there
and be like, all right, we're gonna do it at
you know, Yeah, you're not gonna take over there there
they're saying exactly. But I think that's one thing I
think I really want to for people to really especially

for for for young people who want to get to
food justice, Like you really have to really honestly do
your research first and let the media leaders lead, um
lead lead your program with you, right. And And there's
a difference between like making community connections and then trying
to like take over, right, there's a very very two

very different things exactly. Yeah, you don't want to be extractive, right,
you don't want to be extractive. You don't want to
be coming in and you know, and and and really
like you know, try to like show up with like,
you know, solutions where there they weren't informed at all
by the community. And I keep trying to stress that, Yeah,

is there anywhere that people can support you or at
least follow you online to keep up with the work. Yes, Um,
I'm very active on Twitter. Um it's uh, we're at
Polos pantry, so that's p O l O, s UM
p A and p R why. And then I'm also

tweeting as myself as an organiser. It's under m E
smelling music as M E L L E music. UM,
and that actually that handled for me everywhere, just like
my personal so I I tweet from there a lot.
I tweet a lot about food justice work I feel
and all our all our work in l A I tweet,

I retweet a lot of our MOVEM network and coalition work. Yeah.
Just thank you for coming on to the show to
talk about though justice and the work you've been doing. Um,
it's great to hear more examples of people from around
the country than hopefully you know, around the world getting
involved in in this type of work. UM. Anyway, I

think that it wraps up us today. You can follow
this show on Twitter and Instagram at Happened Here pod
and cool Zone Media. UM, subscribe to the feed, leave
a hive star review or whatever. Anyway, that's that's that's
the show. Bye bye, everybody, say bye everybone, Bye bye everyone,
by everyone. It could Happen Here as a production of

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