When Crisis Builds Community: Fresh Roberson on Mutual Aid

future is mutual aid

Fresh Roberson is a self-described chef, activist, healer and crafter. They’re also a coordinator for Neighbor Loaves – a regional bread program developed by the Artisan Grain Collaborative. 

Like most of us, Fresh remembers the moment they realized that COVID was in fact a BFD: the dawning understanding that this pandemic would leave many marginalized Chicagoans without work and thus, without food.

Since March of last year, Fresh has been putting their grain economy know-how and community connections to work, with Neighbor Loaves serving as a bridge to connect bakers, farmers and mills with Chicago residents in need. Roberson spared us a few moments of their time to tell us the story behind Neighbor Loaves and its incredible impact to date. 

ACE HOTEL CHICAGO: Can you tell us about Artisan Grain Collaborative for readers who may be unfamiliar?

FRESH ROBERSON: Artisan Grain Collaborative is a network of farmers, processors, end-users and food system advocates, working together to diversify the agricultural landscape of the Upper Midwest. Links are built between cities across the Upper Midwest to ensure that ecosystems of local grain chains, (vulnerable even before the pandemic) remain intact. The short and sweet – we believe in supporting the grain economy and also that ALL people should have access to nourishing food.

AHC: How did you get involved?

FR: I am a chef and farmer myself. A couple years ago, I was looking for a way to grow more grain and staple crops and was introduced to AGC via the Chicago Bread Club, a member of AGC that works to promote racial equity in the grain economy. My farm and food project, Fresher Together, joined AGC as my growing practices expanded to include grain and beans. When the Neighbor Loaves program began, I was inspired to become involved because it was such a beautiful mutual aid model – making sure each pieec of the grain chain and community are taken care of in a way that has staying power.

AHC: How did COVID affect the way AGC approaches its mission?

FR: When COVID hit, we quickly went into mutual aid mode — AKA: “how do we feed people who are in need?” My mind went to those on the South Side of Chicago who might not have access to food distribution centers farther north.

AHC: What is the Neighbor Loaves program and how did it come to life?

FR: Neighbor Loaves is a byproduct of COVID-19. It was immediately evident to us that the pandemic would have far reaching effects on bread millers, farmers and suppliers. To support regional grain economies, Neighbor Loaves members bake bread with 50% local flour, paid for by donations that help bakers meet expenses, while investing in local grain farms and mills. Participating bakers source grain from local, sustainable farms and bake loaves, which are then distributed to community feeding organizations that support neighbors in need. Kicked off by bakers in Madison, WI last March, the project was funded by a grant from the Chicago Region Food System Fund just a few months later.

How can I care for my community during a crisis?

Pastry chef Bobby Schaffer prepares Neighbor Loaves at his beloved Andersonville bakery, Lost Larson. Photo by @jaymiey / Posted by @avillechamber

AHC: Where are Neighbor Loaves participants located? How far reaching is the program at present?

FR: In the year since its inception, the program has grown across the Upper Midwest to include Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee WI, Bloomington, IN, Ann Arbor, MI, the Twin Cities and even rural communities like St. Peter, MN and Blue Mounds, WI. We even work with bakeries in New England, the DC-metro area, Pennsylvania, and Washington state.

AHC: Who are your Neighbor Loaves members baking for, specifically?

FR: We leave it to the participants of the program to decide who they’ll bake for. Here in Chicago those organizations include Brave Space Alliance, Care for Real, Breakthrough Fresh Market and more. I personally bake for the Love Fridge’s across the South side.

AHC: Bread is historically a symbol of community and the experience of eating together – the act of breaking bread. Why is sharing bread so essential to community vitality?

FR: Bread is a multifaceted staple crop rooted in every culture. It’s also a symbol of livelihood. This past year more than ever, we’ve seen people understand the comfort and warmth that bread can give in times of uncertainty. Amateur bakers are at home exploring different recipes/techniques, discovering that bread is simultaneously simple and complex. Feeding people is one of the most powerful ways we can care for one another – even if someone doesn’t understand how a loaf of bread ends up on their table, more and more people are understanding the importance of eating locally and how that supports domestic food chains.

Feeding people is one of the most powerful ways we can care for one another

AHC: Chicago is a proud city and that goes for its diverse and close-knit hospitality industry. With that in mind, why do you think the Neighbor Loaves program has been successful here? Is there something unique knitting together the Chicago food industry and its larger community of epicureans?

FR: It’s true – in pre-COVID times Chicagoans sought out ways to support one another and that has only been amplified in the past year. Chicago is a city with a lot of pride and loyalty. Where NL succeeds is in communities like Chicago, with citizens who want to support their local businesses/haunts by any means possible. When those businesses are making it a priority to extend a sense of camaraderie, unity and aid, people are likely to engage.

AHC: What does the future of the Neighbor Loaves program look like to you?

FR: I would love to see this program continue to expand beyond the traditional definition of “bread.” As mentioned previously, bread is culturally transcendent. NL has the ability to include businesses and bakers who make and sell tortillas, conchas, pastries and beyond. I’m talking to someone in the Pullman neighborhood right now who makes an incredible cornbread. I want this program to be as culturally inclusive as possible – the more diverse our members are, the more people we can feed.

AHC: Tell us more about what mutual aid looks like in connection to Neighbor Loaves.

FR: Even pre-pandemic, mutual aid was very much alive in Chicago, especially in communities of color. Black and brown neighborhoods face tremendous inequality when it comes to aid, so if a government agency is not going to help us source nutritious and sustainable food, we have to do it ourselves. It’s a long term initiative with no quick answer, and determining what local food work looks like is an ever-evolving question. But I will say that the pandemic was an opportunity to snowball this conversation and engage community members who may not have otherwise asked the questions or wanted to help. I’m optimistic that this momentum will continue even once we return to “normal.”

AHC: What has the response and impact of the NL program had to date?

FR: Between March and September 2020, over 15k loaves were baked by participating bakeries. As the Neighbor Loaves initiative now approaches its one year anniversary, we’re excited to highlight stories of impact that the program has had over the past year. The March AGC newsletter will announce how many loaves have been donated throughout the country as well experiences from some of the people who have been impacted by the program – you can sign up for the newsletter here.

Basket of Neighbor Loaves at Hewn Bakery. Posted by @hewnbread

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