El Centro SB Gives Meals and Builds Community

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Photo by Troy Sambajon

Troy Aidan Sambajon

Contributing Writer

Since the start of the pandemic, this local community organization has been going above and beyond to help underserved communities put food on the table. “The pandemic has really highlighted how food is distributed and who has the privilege of higher access to food,” said Chuy, a member of El Centro Santa Barbara (SB), in an interview with The Bottom Line. Chuy has requested their surname be omitted to uphold the communal vision of El Centro SB. With neighbors in need and the restrictions of a pandemic, the activist-led community space has been delivering fresh produce boxes and prepared meals to local families in need. 

El Centro SB is a BIPOC-run, queer-centered mutual aid organization, grounded in liberation. Founded five years ago, El Centro SB provides a platform for community members to organize events and invites all folks to come together inside its doors. Seated on the lower west side of Santa Barbara, it’s a central hub for the many families in the area. With programs and events like designing murals, hosting open-mic nights, and their intergenerational ethnic studies school, El Centro SB has built a sense of community and solidarity among neighbors, and within Escualita, a youth program for the Westside community. 

When the pandemic first began, El Centro SB immediately closed their doors to the public, knowing their local communities were most at risk. But there was still work to be done. Donning masks and gloves, members of El Centro SB began assembling and distributing fresh produce boxes to families in need. 

They delivered fresh produce boxes locally sourced from farmers’ markets throughout the summer. Now, in partnership with La Casa de la Raza, El Centro SB delivers prepared meals to families. These large serving containers of prepared dinners are delivered twice a week to over 60 families in the local area.

“For most of its programs, El Centro SB’s work is based on the immediate needs of the community. ‘It’s kind of a sign of where the community is at and what everyone can provide for each other,’ said Chuy.”

“It’s about mutuality, it’s not about service. It’s about solidarity and building out these solidarity networks,” said Chelsea, founder of El Centro SB that goes by she/her pronouns. Chelsea requested their surnames be omitted to uphold the communal vision of El Centro SB. As Chelsea said, they are just “regular a– people who give a f—.” In fact, they aren’t the only ones!

“[We’re] literally just everyday people. That’s the most dope thing about it,” said Chuy.

El Centro SB rides the wave of mutual aid networks that have sprung up throughout the nation to help their local communities amidst the pandemic. In Aurora, Colorado, a group of Facebook users started assembling emergency supply kits for the elderly and families with children out of school. In San Francisco, neighbors bring free groceries, meals, masks, and water to housed and unhoused neighbors. And in Los Angeles, extensive mutual aid funds supply food, drinks, sanitary products, and clothing, among other things. 

No stranger to mutual aid themselves, El Centro SB was crucial in distributing masks and building air purifiers during the 2018 fires and mudslides. For most of its programs, El Centro SB’s work is based on the immediate needs of the community. “It’s kind of a sign of where the community is at and what everyone can provide for each other,” said Chuy. 

So for now, El Centro SB is prioritizing and expanding its mutual aid efforts. In the future, they plan to build out a formal cooperative structure, like the Isla Vista Food Cooperative, to give the opportunity for others to occupy the space and sustain themselves financially. Cooperative businesses and organizations are owned and jointly run by its members, who share the profits or benefits. To learn more about El Centro SB and get involved, follow @elcentrosb on Instagram and visit their website