With the holiday season upon us, giving back is on everyone’s mind. Everyone, that is, except U.S Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), whose surprise announcement that he cannot support the “Build Back Better” bill, one of the most historically important pieces of legislation the Senate has seen in over 50 years, has imperiled President Joe Biden’s signature legislative accomplishment. More importantly, thousands of Americans are losing hope to ever have free or reduced-cost child care, expanded child-tax credits or any reform to keep lower and middle-class families afloat.
Yet, where our federal government has failed, our Newark community has stepped up. Across the city, I’ve seen my neighbors join together to feed, care for and strengthen one another in all the ways that the federal government has too often ignored or fallen short. One fellow Newarker, Altarik White, founder and executive director of Leaders for Life, has worked diligently to create an organization that not only uplifts Newark’s young adults throughout the South Ward but also feeds hundreds of families each year.
When the pandemic hit two years ago, Altarik noticed there were major gaps in the resources being provided to his community, and they weren’t being filled by traditional forms of assistance. Black people have always found a way to take care of those around us, and this time was no different. In a matter of months, Altarik and Leaders for Life were able to provide almost 8,000 free, hot breakfasts to families throughout the city and almost 250 turkey baskets during that first Thanksgiving.
Devastating food insecurity
Across the country, food insecurity is devastating Black Americans. A staggering 24% of Black families in America became food-insecure in 2020, almost three times the number of our white counterparts. Did you read that right? One in four Black Americans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, and of course, that number is even worse when you consider Black female Americans suffered even more due to their increased presence as frontline workers and in industries that were hit hardest by the pandemic. Time and time again, the Black men and women who build and maintain communities are the ones who suffer the most. And that sentiment is echoed in Newark.
Newark’s South Ward is a food desert, one where, according to Leaders for Life, more than one in 10 residents — including children — often go hungry. In this country of plenty and excess, even the largest communities face devastating food insecurity. So Leaders for Life decided to do something about it year-round — not just during the holidays — and created a community fridge.
Community fridges are physical places that residents in need can go and “take what they need, leave what they don’t,” according to Altarik, who has been “amazed by the tremendous amount of support we’ve seen since starting the fridge.”
As a nonprofit organization, the maintenance of the community fridges is done solely by donations and community support. From the $20 given by LFL’s own young members to the $1,000 Project Ready, my organization, has committed to donating, every dollar goes straight toward helping those in need. This year alone, their community fridge has served 700 families, provided over 125 turkey baskets during Thanksgiving, and — because they feed your stomach and your spirit — 425 toys to children. These efforts only multiply during the holiday season, but Leaders for Life doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“When I was a kid, the village took care of its own. Neighbors stepped in,” Altarik said of his childhood, “I remember being able to go down the block to my neighbor’s house and they took care of me as if I was their child. We’re so closed off from one another and need to get back to looking out for each other. If we do that, we may not be able to eradicate food insecurity, but we can make a dent.”
Our leaders in Washington — Sen. Manchin in particular — should come to Newark and take notes on the ways our grassroots leaders have stepped up to fill the void that our government fails to address. They shouldn’t have to carry this weight on their own, but for as long as they do, thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you who do your part in making my home of Newark — or your own community — a better, more caring place this holiday season.