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Gabriela Alemán (right), co-founder of Mission Meals Coalition, with her mother Gabriela Ramírez.  Anna Vignet/KQED
Gabriela Alemán (right), co-founder of Mission Meals Coalition, with her mother Gabriela Ramírez.  (Anna Vignet/KQED)

'Support Is the Force': At Family-Led Mission Meals Coalition, Serving the Community Runs Deep

'Support Is the Force': At Family-Led Mission Meals Coalition, Serving the Community Runs Deep

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or Gabriela Alemán, much of her life's work can be traced back to her mom's shop on the corner of 20th and Mission streets in San Francisco.

“It’s been around 90% of my life,” Alemán said.

Her mother, Gabriela Ramírez, has owned this small chair and table rental business since 2005. “We started this so small. There we were walking around, placing flyers in laundromats,” Ramírez remembers.

She recalls walking through the Mission District in those early days, bringing along her three small daughters, to let residents know about her business. And as Ramírez’s business grew, more and more friends and neighbors in the community began to seek her out when someone close was in need.

Years later, Alemán — now 26 — and Ramírez are now united in their work for Mission Meals Coalition, a mutual aid group that partners with community volunteers and small businesses to provide warm meals and fresh ingredients to families, seniors and other food justice organizations across the Bay Area.

And Ramírez’s shop is now home to one of MMC's offerings to residents fighting to get through the pandemic: a community fridge.

Bringing Out La Refri

Stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, eggs and flour, this single fridge — about the size of one you might find in somebody's home — has fed hundreds of residents since it first showed up in the streets of the Mission last summer.

Initially placed outside of Adobe Books on 24th Street, the fridge was later transferred to Ramírez’s business — after weeks of bad air quality during the fall and the start of the rainy season convinced Alemán to move the fridge indoors.

Anyone can pass by and take what they need during the day, seven days a week. There's no limit on how much food someone can take, and anyone can come in, regardless of where they live or immigration status, to the fridge's home at 2390 Mission St.

Alemán and her MMC co-founders — her sister Xiomara and friend María Castro Noboa — maintain the fridge. But the fridge, known as la refri to the community, is just one service offered by MMC.

Mission Meals Coalition began as a grocery and hot meal delivery service back in March 2020 as a response to the start of the pandemic. Each week, between 400 to 700 people still receive groceries from MMC — which recipients can either pick up in boxes from Ramírez’s shop or have them delivered to their home. On the weekends, the coalition delivers between 100 to 200 hot meals, all prepared by small businesses.

Gabriela Ramírez, mother of Gabriela Alemán, forms part of MMC and has served as the link between MMC and the immigrant community in the Mission District. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

When it came to adding the fridge to MMC's services, Alemán knew it wasn't as simple as making it just appear one day.

“What would you do if you saw a random fridge in the community? What would your community members and friends say about that?” said Alemán.

To answer these questions, Alemán sought out her mom’s advice, who suggested they return to the places where she formed her own network: laundromats and WhatsApp groups.

“It’s really because we have our elders, our anchors, who drive community engagement and who drive the cultural humility that we are able to do this work in a way that people don’t feel like they’re asking for food or that they’re begging for anything,” Alemán said.

“It’s not charity,” she added. “We treat them just like we would treat any other neighbor.”

In the 27 years she's lived in San Francisco, Gabriela Ramírez has kept a close relationship with her family and friends back in El Salvador, her country of origin. Whenever she can, she sends boxes with food or clothing back to them, something that motivated her daughters to set up MMC. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

'A Small Seed'

Growing up, Alemán saw how Ramírez would use her shop as a space to gather support for her family and friends from afar.

“We started to make a little bit of money and from this, I would set aside a small amount to buy many things to send to El Salvador, to my family’s community," Ramírez explains. "And they would share what I sent with other people, based on what they needed."

Ramírez sent her deliveries through one of the several businesses up and down Mission Street that offer a way to send boxes full of clothes, toys or dry food to a migrant’s community back in their country of origin. Bits and pieces of a new life in the U.S., moving across oceans and national borders.

These boxes wouldn’t just go to her family in El Salvador, Ramírez notes. Friends, neighbors and even people she hadn’t met would get a bit of what she sent. She was happy that she could help her loved ones even when she had very little.

Gabriela Ramírez gives a bag of Mission Meals Coalition food supplies to a community member. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

“This gave light to more ideas, the same way that one plants a small seed, many more come after,” Ramírez said, referencing the MMC community fridge standing next to her in her shop.

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'Cultural Competency Isn’t Just Something We Say'

While the Mission Meals Coalition buys some of the groceries it gives away, most of what comes in are donations. Alemán and other MMC members inspect every item that comes in, making sure that it’s not just safe to eat but also something that will be recognized and welcomed by the recipients.

“The Latinx diaspora is so nuanced. We have South American, Central American and North American community members together,” Alemán points out.

Serving a community as expansive as the Mission requires awareness and knowledge of the multiple palates and culinary ingredients present across Latin America.

Take the bean for example. Alemán explained that growing up in a Central American household, she grew accustomed to a specific set of beans in her cuisine. While similar, these beans, and the way they are cooked, are distinct from those used in Mexican and South American kitchens.

Respecting each culinary tradition forms part of what Alemán refers to as the 'cultural competency' of MMC's work. “We do a really strong, centralized effort to ensure that cultural competency isn’t just something we say but something that we do consistently,” she said.

Since its inception in March of 2020, the Mission Meals Coalition has fed hundreds of families throughout the Bay Area, relying on a model of mutual aid to support their work. One of the founders of MMC, Xiomara Alemán prepares for a food distribution at her mother's shop in San Francisco's Mission District. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

'If You Want It, You Can Do It'

As the impact of Mission Meals Coalition grows, Alemán finds herself faced with decisions over how to use one of the coalition’s most precious resources: time.

In order to serve more groceries, she’s had to cut back on the hours to receive donations. “We used to be seven days a week. We’ve now minimized it to two, or sometimes to one day, so we have enough time to source enough food because the line [for groceries] will sometimes be ... from 50 to 200 people,” she said.

She’s also become more selective with her own time, making sure to carefully ration her energy. Like so many others, she had no idea that the pandemic would last this long.

“In doing work that is so collective, finding times to be an individual is so important,” Alemán explained. “Finding times to read and literally to just nap, to have structure for myself has been the most helpful to take care of myself.”

As Alemán describes the challenges that come with doing food work, her mom listens next to her. Ramírez knows well the feeling of not knowing whether she’ll have something to give her family when dinner time rolls around.

Before starting her business, Ramírez struggled to make enough money, even when she worked several jobs at the same time, to cover rent and have enough left over to bring food home. Yet, “I always, always have had a certain strength," she said. "And I tell them, my daughters, that sometimes you may think something is hard. If you want it, you can do it."

Ramírez also knows that without the support of her friends, family and community organizations that provided mentoring, Ramírez’s business would not have taken off, she said. “Support is the force needed to do anything, to help oneself,” she added.

“To any woman, I give her strength and I tell her, 'You can do it. If you want to, you can go as far as you want to.' Because God has given both men and women the same two hands. One can do it,” Ramírez said.

'We do a really strong, centralized effort to ensure that cultural competency isn’t just something we say but something that we do consistently,' Gabriela Alemán says. During its food distributions, MMC allows recipients to choose what they would like to receive from a menu of options. Xiomara Alemán, shown, explains to a recipient what is available at the moment. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

'Mutual Aid Is How We’ve Been Able to Survive'

In San Francisco, the probability for a Latino resident to contract COVID-19 is five times higher than non-Latino residents, according to data compiled by Mission Local.

That number is even more stark when you compare Latinos with white people who are not Latinos. There have been 8,665 recorded COVID-19 cases in San Francisco per 100,000 Latino residents. While there have been 1,463 recorded COVID-19 cases per 100,000 white, non-Latino residents.

“We keep hearing how this has been the worst year of so many people’s lives. And for our communities it’s more like every year sucks,” Alemán asserts.

“In so many ways when you’re dealing with poverty and you’re dealing with food insecurity, housing instability, no access to health care. It’s not new in any other way,” she said.

And just like the challenges to her community are not new, neither are the solutions. After all, as Alemán said, "Mutual aid isn’t new."

The term has become more mainstream during the pandemic, but Alemán reminds us that mutual aid is just a new term for a tradition of solidarity within immigrant populations that has existed for decades. “Mutual aid exists outside of the English language,” she adds, and references the circles of support her mother and other immigrants organize to help those that have just arrived in the U.S.

“In our community’s experiences in this country, mutual aid is how we’ve been able to survive throughout our time here and experiences here," Alemán said. "It’s been an integral part of that, although it is new in using this language.”

While the phrase may not fully acknowledge the historical roots of this type of social work, it can, however, lend itself to Alemán and other organizers as a recognizable term when asking local and state authorities to finance this type of organizing. Which isn't to say that obtaining this kind of support is simple.

A pop-up COVID-19 testing site near the BART station on 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2020. The site is part of the Unidos En Salud initiative, a collaboration between UCSF and the city's Latino Task Force, in response to the city's rapidly rising case rates. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Getting our local officials to listen to us, as mutual aid groups, has been incredibly difficult,” Alemán said. “Mainly because on paper, it’s great to say that you have mutual aid groups in your community, district or neighborhood. But when it comes to putting funding and support into that, it’s really, really hard.”

Last September, Mayor London Breed announced $28.5 million to improve testing access and alleviate the economic impacts of the pandemic for the city’s Latino population. And $3.6 million was originally designated to go to food banks and hubs operating in predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

Additionally, the city reports that it allocated a separate fund of approximately $2 million between the Mission Food Hub and HOMEY, two other Mission-based organizations that carry out weekly food distributions. (HOMEY received $98,800, and $1.9 million went to the Mission Food Hub.)

Mission Meals Coalition has not received any part of this $2 million. And Alemán worries that city authorities are overlooking smaller collectives that don’t attract a lot of media attention, but still do a lot of the heavy lifting in providing food to residents.

“We are seeing that the city, in particular, and other larger agencies are just funneling a lot of resources into ... the same spaces,” Alemán said.

She points out that while MMC has built a network of community support throughout the pandemic, those who are making and routing donations face their own financial difficulties, which trickles down to the organizations they receive.

But throughout it all, the need for food doesn’t stop. And both Alemán and Ramírez predict it will continue far into the future, even after the COVID-19 vaccine has been made widely available.

“We plan to continue this work. We are currently slowly outgrowing this space so we hope to have a permanent home one day here in the Mission,” Alemán said.

One of the objectives she and her mom share is to firmly establish the relationship between MMC and the community it serves so that it outlasts the pandemic.

“We have to be strong, regardless of other things. Each of the girls has to keep looking for support or ways we can make this happen. But we have to keep helping the people,” Ramírez said.

  • Want to find out how you or a loved one can access the services of the Mission Meals Coalition, or want to support their work yourself? Find information on their website.

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