We’ve all heard the old phrase, “you are what you eat,” but what does that mean when the food runs out? Does it make your worth tantamount to nothing?  

Anyone with the slightest bit of empathy knows that isn’t the case.

For someone who experiences those feelings of hunger on a regular basis, it’s not uncommon for depression and a lack of self-esteem to follow, becoming a part of the recipe for poverty.

Hunger is just one offshoot of that poverty, and it impacts every aspect of a poor person’s life. For those who are members of marginalized communities (Black, brown, LGBTQ, differently-abled and others) poverty can often be, or can seem like, a continuous cycle with no end in sight. Sometimes the cycle begins in early childhood and sometimes it starts in midlife. Regardless of the starting point, the impact is always devastating. 

Since abduction from Africa to enslavement in the Americas, Black people have been making a little go a long way and striving to take care of community members with no blood relation. That’s not very different from what the Black Panther Party tried to do. 

Yes, you read that correctly. 

They were far more than the gun-toting and beret-wearing militants history often, and incorrectly, portrays them as. 

If you ever had free school breakfast or lunch, those meals and programs were inspired by the Black Panther Party (BPP). They started the first free breakfast program in January 1969 at an Episcopal church in Oakland, Calif. The program grew and soon BPP members and volunteers solicited donations from grocery stores, sought advice on nutritious meal choices and prepared and served meals for thousands of children across multiple states. 

With that success, they expanded the program to include free ambulance services, free medical clinics and free legal clinics. Unfortunately, J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to destroy the BPP began with destroying their free breakfast program. In Chicago, local law enforcement agencies raided sites where the programs were being held, harassed party members (in front of terrified children), destroyed food and even urinated on items set to feed the hungry. Hoover’s efforts (in conjunction with other sanctioned violent and punitive methods) succeeded in dismantling the BPP over time. Not long after, the U.S. government adopted its own free meals program in 1975, which continues today. According to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, over 14 million students received free meals prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and currently about 11 million students still do. 

Black folks feeding others in the Black community and actively participating in their own economic mobility isn’t a new idea. Thankfully, it isn’t an idea that died with the dismantling of the Black Panther Party. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close, many children were left wondering where one or two of their only meals would come from and many Black-led organizations stepped up.

In Chicago, the non-profit Thankful for Chicago, founded by Kemdah Stroud and Haley Reeves Fox, have made it their mission “to create experiences [from which] people leave better than they came.” In doing so, their community initiative known as “The People’s Free Food Program” operates in the spirit of the Panthers and was a direct response to Chicago Public School closures during the pandemic. Chicago Public Schools have since reopened, but Thankful for Chicago continues to serve food to those who might otherwise go without. 

In Charlotte, Poor No More launched three years ago with a similar mission that has left many in the city grateful for its community-serving-community model. Called a “neighborhood free store,” the non-profit organization was originally housed in founder Jermaine Nakia Lee’s art studio in NoDa. Poor No More “guardians,” or community supporters and volunteers, assisted in giving out food packages to those in need.

Quickly the food donations grew to include clothing, household items (from blenders to sofas) and monetary donations to assist with transportation to employment and medical appointments. Some people even receive help with paying rental expenses. According to Lee, the organization has helped approximately 4,000 individuals and families so far, with no plans of halting their efforts. The organization is Black LGBTQ-led and operated and has made assisting LGBTQ people a specific part of its mission, with a focus on the Black and brown transgender community. 

Transgender people face hunger, housing insecurity and poverty overall at disproportionate rates compared to the cisgender population. Discrimination and barriers to assistance are real, and great. According to a 2020 study published in BMC Public Health Journal, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals “reported feeling unwelcome at local food pantries, particularly at pantries operated by faith-based organizations.”  

Multiple personal accounts were recorded during the study. Said one participant: “People are required to sit through a church service, and the pastor has spoken against homosexuality, which made me uncomfortable.” Another recalled, “It is Christian-based and that tends not to go well for us here.” Other food pantry clients have suggested such organizations may be unwelcoming because of the socio-conservative climate of the southeastern region of the United States. “I’m in the Bible Belt,” offered an individual who felt ostracized by the overtly religious environment. “They say we do not exist or are mentally challenged.”

Statistically, these accounts are more likely in “Bible Belt” cities found in the south. A majority of food pantries, 67 percent, are run by faith-based institutions. Adding to discriminatory practices that increase food insecurity for the trans community are state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA), or “religious freedom laws,” which allow institutions, including food pantries, to deny services to select community members based on religious beliefs. Among those allowed to be discriminated against and denied assistance are transgender and gender non-conforming people. Additionally, some states in the southeast have, on average, extremely high levels of social stigma toward LGBTQ people, as shown by the absence of employment or non-discrimination laws that provide legal protection. This combination decreases the safety, economic stability and acceptance of the estimated 380,000 transgender and gender non-conforming people living in the region. 

According to Gladece Knights at Poor No More, they are directly addressing these disparities. She has been involved with Lee since the start and serves as program director. In that time, Knights has learned from other non-profits and tries to implement aspects that work. An example for comparison is the well-known Goodwill Industries department store setup, with items well arranged for age groups, style and occasion. She points out a big difference, however. “They charge for clothing. With Poor No More, everything is free.”

While they don’t charge, Knights points out that they treat everyone like paying customers. “We help them shop,” she says, to ensure the dignity and positive experience of all shoppers. These things make a big difference in how customers experience the store and how they go back out into the world. Knights says they have done their job if a customer leaves feeling like “I don’t have to worry about [this] one thing [food, clothing or household items] in regard to the maintenance of my family and home, I’m able to uplift myself and work on other things.” 

That is empowering and a step toward Black economic mobility.

Lee no longer has his art studio, so Poor No More has literally taken its efforts to the streets in the form of pop-up “Free Stores” in underserved communities – while seeking to secure another brick-and-mortar location. Some of these pop-ups specifically cater to the transgender community. 

Without citing any studies, Lee astutely saw a need and jumped to address it. “We realized we needed to create safe spaces exclusively for trans women of color,” he said, “We offer name brand items, shoes, makeup. Belk is a community partner that actually gives us makeup, purses and shoes…high end stuff.” 

When asked how this is impacting the economic outcomes for the community, he said: “What Poor No More does is affirm [the trans community], wherever they are [in their journey of transition] by assisting them in aligning the aesthetic without judgement. Once someone is aligned with their aesthetic, with how they envision themselves, that increases confidence. Increased confidence goes viral. Relationships blossom, interpersonal ones, business relationships, their walk is different, their talk is different, their quality of life is different [and] better.”  

All the work however, is not without challenges. Lee expressed concern over the federal moratorium on evictions ending soon. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the moratorium from June 30 to July 31. The CDC said that, “this is intended to be the final extension of the moratorium.” 

An estimated 250,000 North Carolinians are behind on their rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to Lee, a Crisis Ministries representative told him individuals and families in need have been looking for $5,000 to $7,000 on average in rental assistance. He fears there will be mass homelessness and hasn’t heard anything about what the city or county is planning to do in preparation. Along those lines, he continued to say how the work “Poor No More” does is not purely about assisting the Black community or the transgender community, but the underserved working-poor. “You’ve got to be at your lowest to qualify for help [at many agencies and community organizations], when what we need to be looking into is how do we stop those people from slipping down into the next level of poverty,” he said. Because of the need of so many, his goal for Poor No More in the upcoming months is to focus on monetary donations. “Money to provide groceries, medication and gas for families is sorely needed.” 

As for how individuals and organizations can help community members stave off food insecurity and poverty in general, Lee offered his thoughts, “That’s one of the roles that the media plays. The community needs to know what we’re doing.” As a result of recent media coverage that Poor No More received, a local Methodist minister pledged to assist the organization in finding a forever home. 

The model goes back to community-serving-community. “Everything that we need specifically in the LGBTQ community and to address the needs of the greater community ­— we have it,” says Lee “We have every resource that we need within ourselves. My job as a leader of a charitable organization is to combine all those elements to address the needs of the community and build capacity.” 

Poor No More’s next Neighborhood Free Store pop-up is Saturday, July 31, 12-4 p.m. at 1025 East 36th Street in Charlotte.

Research assistance provided by Pallavi Patil. 

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