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Maricela Vega On Feeding And Supporting Undocumented Immigrants

Turning her restaurant into a CSA kitchen where every bag of food purchased helps someone else eat.

Maricela Vega is executive chef of 8arm restaurant in Atlanta. Since the pandemic, she and her team have transformed the restaurant from a takeaway model to a community-supported agriculture program (CSA). Since starting the CSA with fresh produce from local farmers, she’s teamed up with the Atlanta-based art nonprofit Living Walls to create the “Each One, Feed One” program. For every CSA box purchased, another box will go to an undocumented family through Freedom University.

In Georgia, undocumented immigrants are paying over $300 million in state and local taxes. And of course if you have undocumented status during the pandemic, you were left out of any government support. So no stipends for them at all, no stimulus, no nothing. We’re just trying to figure out ways to help people out.

I saw that Arnaldo Castillo (executive chef at Minero) and Manuel Lara (sous chef at Serpas) are running a meal service where they’re donating 50% of the proceeds. They’ll take some of that money and contribute it to different organizations or people in their own neighborhoods who need help paying rent.

Before we knew the whole city was going to shut down, we had already started thinking of plans in the very beginning of March. We started with to-go food, but after about two weeks sales just weren’t what we needed. We realized we had to furlough everybody. We just kept a handful of people. This same crew and I have been working together throughout quarantine.

Photo: Lyric Lewin.

We had already discussed doing a CSA program. We thought maybe folks would be into the idea of us continuing to source local produce and products the way we do, and then we could set up a safe area so that folks can come in, pick up their bag, and then go. It definitely did really well—in the first two weeks we saw it go from 60 orders to 150.

While that was going on, we were texting with other people in the industry trying to figure out what sort of services were available for undocumented folks. We started having questions about what we could do for them since they’re not going to receive any benefits. And none of us could come up with any good answers because we didn’t see any immediate programs that were benefiting the undocumented food workers.

So it just happened by pure chance that Monica Campana, the director of Living Walls, called me one day and said they wanted to do a partnership. There are 25 undocumented students signed up with Freedom University, and Living Walls had been donating to them, so we partnered with Living Walls to provide those students with CSA boxes. And that’s how the “Each One, Feed One” program was born.

Photo: Lyric Lewin.

We were able to keep those CSA subscription numbers high until we started taxing folks with the “Each One, Feed One” program. I call it “taxing” because it’s $15 that we add on to each person’s CSA box amount to cover the costs for the ones we give for free to the Freedom University undocumented student program. We also added an option on our website for $60 donations in case someone doesn’t want to buy a CSA but they want to support the program.

The first couple weeks, folks might have felt really panicky, wanting a safe system of pickup so they don’t have to go into grocery stores—there’s minimal interaction, and they’re supporting our business. Now at this point, rules have loosened up, and you see everyone running around and kind of returning back to what it was. I feel like the drop in sales is a combination of that and maybe the CSA going from $45 to $60—maybe all of those different variables resulted in the fact that this week we’ve had just 70 or 80 folks subscribe. We still have enough to make a fourth week happen, but the fifth week, it’s just going to be a constant fundraising event. Every week we have to figure out a marketing tactic or procedure to get folks to buy into the idea of supporting this program.

The undocumented students do give me a lot of feedback. They’re so grateful to have such a variety of produce, and they can taste a difference in the food for sure. Things that you wouldn’t see at the local bodegas, the taste is even different—they seem to be excited to see the different colors of radishes and carrots. It’s so important to share the information with these young people. Giving a different perspective to them has been really inspiring. After the pandemic, I do hope that they’ll figure out how to stay in touch with these farms and resources.

Photo: Lyric Lewin.

By providing them with healthy produce, it’s not only beneficial health-wise but also safety-wise. It’s one less car ride that they have to make. There are checkpoints that they have to be wary of on a constant basis. Some of the Freedom University students were driving in from out of the city, and they had to warn each other about different hotspots for checkpoints. In this time because so many folks didn’t receive stipends or financial help, being able to provide groceries to make a homemade meal is important because that homemade meal can be one situation that gives them control in a time when so much is out of their control.

These students are dealing with a constant state of trauma—everything they went through to get to this circumstance, the everyday hustle and hurdles they have to endure, being in school, figuring out the systems, their parents struggling with rent and bills. So by providing fresh, nutritional produce that is local and has been specially harvested for them, they’ve expressed that it feels as though there is another family looking out for them. There are no strings attached on our end, no one had to fill out any paperwork or go through this entire process, which is something you see now—“if you want help you’re going to have to stand in line, you’re going to have to fill out paperwork, you’re going to have to go through these obstacles.” But we gave them the CSA boxes with no strings attached. We wanted that handoff to be extremely easy and accessible, so at least it’s one less thing they have to worry about.

At such a young age, they have to think about attorneys, legal processes, what happens if they get arrested—things that I know I didn’t have to think about growing up. Whether they were born here or not, they always have to think about “my status, my status, my status”—it’s an everyday ordeal for them.

Photo: Lyric Lewin.

I’d estimate that roughly 80 percent of the entire food sector in the US, from seed, harvesting, selling, packaging, processing, and preparing, all the way to rinsing off that dish—80 percent of that entire chain is thanks to the work of undocumented immigrants. Small agriculture takes good care of their people, but big agriculture doesn’t. I’ve heard of people who only make $15 a day. Take all of that into consideration, and factor in how much these folks have been carrying on their backs—the weight, literally and figuratively. It shows that we need to change the inequality in all of this regardless of their status. They’re providing so much for our economy.

The food sector makes billions of dollars for the overall GDP, and undocumented immigrants are a part of that. So we can’t say, “Well they’re illegal, it’s not our problem.” Even if you don’t take into account the circumstances of why they’re here to begin with, the historical context, you can look at the amount of work they’ve put into benefiting our economy.

One thing giving me hope right now is seeing all the different organizations, small and large, banding together wherever it may be, and we’re setting examples for each other. I don’t think it’s realistic for us to always rely on government support, especially in times like this. If we solely rely on that, we’ll see so many communities of color suffer. If we are able to help, then we will, and that’s what’s giving me hope.

Photo: Lyric Lewin.