How Food Sustained the LGBTQ+ Community During the Pandemic

We use food as a tangible way to show we care.

Risa Lichtman, a chef, and advocate in Portland, Oregon, couldn't see her queer community for most of 2020, but she could see their love through the food gifts they left on her porch. In addition to the struggles brought on by the pandemic, Lichtman and her wife also experienced pregnancy loss. During the grief-ridden days of lockdown, they found their support from Portland's "porch culture."

"Our porch and many other porches around town were seeing this sort of influx of generosity. After our miscarriage, our porch was overflowing," she said. "You could look at our porch every day and see what was going on."

Lichtman's experience is a key example of how the queer community operates. We take care of each other. We use food as a tangible way to show our care.

Alley Frey, a friend of Lichtman's in Portland, and their partner, Jodie Cavalier, were some of the muscle behind porch gifts all over the city at the beginning of the pandemic. They organized a small meal aid. Each week, they cooked a vegetarian meal and distributed them via pick-up or delivery. Their friends volunteered to deliver each week and would bake fresh bread, donate produce CSAs, or whatever they could offer.

paper bag full of soup from queer soup night with handwritten card laying on the top of the bag
A Queer Soup Night offering includes a handwritten card. Courtesy of Studio XIII Photography

Through social media and a partnership with Stroll PDX, an advocacy and mutual aid organization for sex workers, Frey and Cavalier had a list of people to serve every week.

"Our goal was simply to make food and have it get to anyone who needed it. An honor system of sorts," Frey wrote in an email. "I think everyone who signed up either for a one-off, or consistent weekly subscribers all needed a home-cooked meal, a friendly face, and a little connection in such a dark moment. For many, our food was the first and only food they received during the early months of the pandemic."

Frey added that during the pandemic their "queer community was always present despite our inability to share physical space." They had friends who would bring a weekly cocktail in exchange for a piece of cake or whatever was leftover from Frey and Cavalier's cooking that week.

person holding soup from queer soup night
An example of a dish from Queer Soup Night. Studio XIII Photography

Lichtman has been feeding the queer community in Portland long before the pandemic began. For more than three years, she's been running the Portland chapter of Queer Soup Night (QSN), a program in communities across the U.S. dedicated to raising money for local charities that benefit the queer community. QSN, which began in New York City following the 2016 election, uses local restaurants or bar spaces to serve the community a meal, typically by a pay-what-you-want system.

They're about catching up with friends over a warm bowl of soup with freshly baked bread and lots of selfies. But, when the pandemic hit, the whole concept had to be reworked. Lichtman tried to devise a plan where QSNs could still have the same community feel, with the "porch culture" approach. Last October, she and the women of Portland's Roux organized a QSN catered to the pandemic era. Drag queens hosted the drive-through event and welcomed attendees as they arrived to pick up their packaged meals. People in COVID pods took their meals with them to gather and enjoy elsewhere. The event was ticketed for COVID safety precautions, but they operated on a sliding-scale system and no one was turned away if they couldn't contribute anything.

queer soup night volunteers holding soup
Queer Soup Night volunteers. Courtesy of Studio XIII Photography

Early in 2021, QSN was back with an in-person event at a local queer coffee shop. The event was still outside and pick-up only, but Lichtman said she could feel spirits lighten.

"It somehow really fed this need for community, even if you weren't sitting there eating with everyone, packed into a bar shoulder to shoulder," she said. "There was still something about doing this together, even if you were eating it separately, there was still something that it gave to us emotionally that helped bring a little reprieve."

Deacon O'Connor and D'arcy Holmberg, both based on the East Coast, are the co-founders of Queer Global, an organization dedicated to providing resources to the most marginalized members of society.

"We support and prioritize the people who are least represented in and outside of the rainbow umbrella," their mission statement reads. "This is an organization that puts people of color, disability, size, education, and financial oppression first."

Holmberg and O'Connor realized the pandemic was an opportunity to use their mission to help their local queer community in Brooklyn, where they both lived at the time. They, along with volunteers, helped gather information on local community fridges, gardens, and other sources who were collecting food for those who needed it.

"The community fridge was a great way to get people to understand that people we directly knew were in need of these things," O'Connor said. "A lot of people don't seem to understand that there's a good portion of our community that needs instant help, that's constantly on the verge of crisis, and those are the people we're trying to help."

The pandemic also sparked activists, including Deacon and O'Connor, to bring more awareness to smaller, grassroots organizations that serve intersectional populations of the LGBTQ+ community. Organizations such as Red Canary Song (a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers), Black Veterans for Social Justice, the Okra Project, and G.L.I.T.S. showed up all over social media. Community fridges, mutual aid funds, and other resource funds continue to be vital to the queer community.

O'Connor, who has a compromised immune system and was taking extra precaution during the lockdown, cleared out a bookshelf in a closet to grow his own microgreens and would drop them off for friends in the area. Slowly, he made space for other lettuce and other plants.

Although isolation was a tough time, O'Connor said he found the humor in his situation: "My family thought it was hilarious. They were like, 'This is the most New York thing. You're farming in your closet.'"

Lichtman and Frey are also still seeing a strong mutual aid culture throughout Portland, where the conversations continue about how to make future gatherings welcoming, safe, and enriching.

"Queers do so much to take care of each other, and to show love and affection through acts of service, particularly through food," Frey said. "I feel stronger than ever in my queer food community right now. We're living through so much, and continuing to feed each other is the best way we can keep our community strong and loved."

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