The Portland metro area has seen an increasing interest in mutual aid networks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, historic wildfires, and national protests calling for racial justice and police accountability.
The pandemic revealed some of the shortcomings of the nation's collection safety net programs, leaving local communities to bring matters into their own hands.
One Beaverton resident decided to organize a mutual aid network in her own neighborhood by starting the Beaverton Food Project.
Inca Gutner said the idea was inspired by the action of PDX Free Fridge, a community-based effort to increase access to fresh food and supplies by creating a network of free fridges and pantries throughout Portland.
"PDX Free Fridge is run by an amazing group of people who have made strides in cultivating a strong culture of mutual aid and community care in Portland," said Gutner. "My sister and I had been helping them with fridge upkeep and wanted to start something similar within our immediate community of Beaverton. We thought it would be interesting to see how mutual aid could operate in a suburban setting, as it was really beginning to grow as a movement in major urban hubs around the nation."
Mutual aid networks are distinct from charities or nonprofits in that they emphasize social solidarity rather than relying on philanthropy or "top-down" solutions.
The concept is as ancient as humanity itself, with communities throughout history working together to ensure collective survival.
"This distinction is important because mutual aid, unlike non-profitization, is an ongoing practice that instills community care into everyday life," Gutner said.
Today, there are around 10 free fridges and pantries scattered throughout the Beaverton, Aloha and Hillsboro. Neighbors volunteer to host these fridges and pantries, while community members volunteer to restock and clean them.
"We have been incredibly lucky, because everyone involved in this project has been so generous with their time, energy, space, and donations," Gutner said. "It has been really awesome to see a quick turnover with the food in the pantries … the food donations are being eaten."
Shelly Eugenio, secretary for Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Beaverton, said she has seen firsthand how the fridge hosted at the Beaverton Bahá'í Center helps the surrounding community.
She remembers stopping by the fridge one day to drop off some food, when she saw an elderly man with a walker waiting by the fridge.
"He really depends on it and comes on a regular basis," Eugenio said. "I mean, that shows that (the fridge) is needed."
Later, another young man showed up to drop off a box full of packaged salad, Eugenio said. He told her he was in touch with various food banks who needed to distribute some excess food.
"And he said that he himself has no extra money, but he has a car, so he wants to give back to the community by doing what he can," she said.
The man also told Eugenio that he benefited from free fridges and pantries in the community as well.
"I just thought that was really wonderful that he was both someone who needed it, but also who helped with it," she said.
Eugenio said community-based efforts like free fridges and pantries align with the values of Bahá'í teachings, so when Gutner approached them to set up a fridge last year, the Bahá'í Center gave her a resounding "yes."
"Bahá'í faith is the unity of mankind, and one of the other main teachings is the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty," she said. "We do as much as we can to help our fellow humans."
Both Gutner and Eugenio said the project has mostly been received well in the community, although Gutner said there have been some instances of "hateful actions" against the project.
"Although I would like to make a statement about our zero tolerance towards hate, I first and foremost have the responsibility to protect pantry hosts," she said. "I chose to refrain from publicizing these actions, with the chance that it might encourage more hateful behavior against the free food pantries and fridges."
Moving forward, Gutner says it's imperative that the community continues contributing consistently to the project.
"I would love to see BFP and lessons around the importance of mutual aid to be integrated within our education system, so that this practice of community care continues for years and generations to come," she said.
For more information on the project and where fridges and pantries are located, visit beavertonfoodproject.com
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