‘A Huge Gap in the System’
Working families who don’t qualify for federal food assistance often can’t afford all the groceries they need. Culture Aid NOLA is bridging the gap.
By Valeria Ali
Erica Chomsky-Adelson worked for 14 years in nonprofit disaster response before taking the helm at Culture Aid NOLA in 2020. Today, she leads Culture Aid’s work distributing roughly 3,400 bags of groceries each month to local families. Chomsky-Adelson’s message to New Orleans is clear: We all know people who need help, whether we realize it or not.
“I guarantee that you know someone that is hungry right now,” Chomsky-Adelson said, noting 600 families access food at Culture Aid distribution sites each week. “It might be the bartender down at the corner bar. It might be the woman bagging your groceries at Winn-Dixie. It might be the waitress who’s making $2.13 an hour.”
Culture Aid NOLA launched in March 2020, the result of a collaboration of nonprofits including the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic and Assistance Foundation, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, Trinity Loaves and Fishes and 504 Health Net. The nonprofit does not require an ID or paperwork for residents to access food at its distribution sites. The goal is to remove the stigma associated with asking for help and, in turn, get more people the help they need, Chomsky-Adelson said.
Community Reporting Fellow Valeria Ali sat down with Chomsky-Adelson to learn more about local food access challenges and what we can do to reduce the stigma around accessing assistance. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VA: What was different about the way Culture Aid was distributing food when you launched back in 2020?
ECA: Our distributions are widely publicized with no barriers. We aim to make them happy places. We were serving a lot of people who didn’t know where else to go. They were–and they still are–driving a Mercedes. They have mortgages. They had white collar jobs before Covid-19 and now they cannot pay the bills. Now we are starting to see that more and more. Our hope is to be able to take some of that stress off their plate and replace it with vegetables. We are able to help these people like we should as humans, and we’re also able to empower them to help others. We’re pretty much one of the only places you can go and pick up and be encouraged to pick up multiple bags for friends and family and neighbors. And in doing that, in urging people to interact with each other, we’re hoping to strengthen some of these social safety networks.
VA: What is something that has surprised you about this work?
ECA: At the beginning of Covid we were serving people who were new to hunger. People who had never been to a food distribution before, they were ashamed of being here and didn’t quite know where to go for help. They hadn’t had to navigate a lot of these systems before. It is a deeply shameful experience, both to be hungry and to have to tell someone else that you’re hungry.
VA: It’s hard for people to talk openly about food insecurity. You note folks who seek food assistance often experience guilt and shame. Why do you think that is? How do we challenge that?
ECA: America hates poor people. What I mean by that is that we as a society feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more safe when we think that bad things only happen to bad people. It is deeply shameful here to ask for help. It’s that bootstrap, “manifest destiny” Western mentality that we’ve all bought into for hundreds of years, and it harms people in a lot of ways. On a very real level, it denies people the help that they have requested that they do, in fact, need. But it also makes it harder to even ask for help setting aside the paperwork and the requirements. People don’t want to admit that they’re hungry. It’s a deeply shameful process. The message is that you’re not a good provider. That you can’t care for your family. That you have done something wrong because you are not a millionaire entrepreneur. It’s that shame, that sense of othering, that I think really plays into this. We serve a lot of people who are in what would usually be considered good white collar jobs. We have city employees, we have public safety employees, we have employees from several universities who come to our line.
VA: How do government food assistance programs factor in?
ECA: In 2021, the income limit in southeast Louisiana for a family to access a food pantry was $22,412 a year for a family of two. That’s a single parent and a child at $22,412. You absolutely cannot raise a child on that. You can’t even really be working full-time on that. If a single parent in that scenario makes $22,413, [just a dollar over], she can’t get [access to government food assistance]. There’s just a huge gap in the system and blind spots between people who are at the very, very bottom of the scale, and people who are fine.
VA: What is something most people don’t realize about food insecurity in southeast Louisiana? Nationwide?
ECA: Military family hunger is a huge problem. It’s very often overlooked because it’s something that we don’t want to think about. We don’t want to think that we as a country are asking people to make the ultimate sacrifice for us and yet we are unwilling to keep their families alive while they do so. It’s really disgusting. It’s really gross. No military family should ever have to ask for anything, no matter what.
Culture Aid works very closely with a group called Bastion, which is an intentional community of resilience for returning wounded warfighters. They have trauma informed care. They do activities together there, they have a community of tiny houses, and they all come back to life together. They’ve been doing a food pantry, cooking classes and canning classes, using food as a tool to build community and to build a self-reliant style of resilience. I’m really quite proud of that partnership. I think it’s been really beautiful.
Valeria Ali is a Fall 2021 Community Reporting Fellow. Ali grew up in Jefferson Parish and a graduate of Loyola University New Orleans. She works as a communications and events associate at The Idea Village in New Orleans.
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