Food heroes of Philadelphia

How one woman made it her mission to feed Philly’s undocumented immigrant families

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Deja Alvarez and Crystal Cheepudom
Philadelphia Gay News is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a solutions-oriented collaborative reporting project on poverty and Philadelphia’s push for economic justice.

It all began when Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims sent his friend, Deja Lynn Alvarez, a $35 box of groceries from Giordano’s. Alvarez, a health liaison for World Health Care Infrastructures (WHCI) and proud transwoman, saw in this grocery box the potential to deliver one like it to every undocumented immigrant family in Philadelphia who is struggling to get by in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

“That day, an undocumented woman with children called WHCI to say she’d lost her job and couldn’t feed her kids,” said Alvarez. Alvarez and Executive Director Yoshiaki Yamasaki are the only two employees still left at the WHCI office to answer calls such as this. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, there are about 50,000 undocumented people living in Philadelphia. In the wake of COVID-19, said Alvarez, many businesses had to lay off workers and undocumented immigrant workers were the first to go. For an undocumented person, explained Alvarez, it is devastating to lose a job because it is that much more difficult to find another employer who is willing to give them a job.

Alvarez said she gave this woman a ShopRite gift card, but it wasn’t until she received the Giordano’s grocery box that a larger idea hit her. That night, she posted her Cashapp and Venmo accounts on Facebook and asked for donations to put together grocery boxes for other undocumented immigrant families in need. When she woke up, she found a few hundred dollars in her account. With that, Alvarez decided to drive to Delaware county where the discount grocery stores seem to have more in stock. “I got cart-fulls of stuff,” said Alvarez, “trying to make sure I got sustainable stuff like peanut butter, pancake mix, syrup, dry pasta, pasta sauce —  because all of that stretches.”

After making a few deliveries to a dozen or so families, Alvarez connected with friends in government such as Pennsylvania Senator Sharif Street, James Harrity and Micah Mahjoubian who work in Street’s office, Councilman Bobby Henon, and former Montgomery County candidate Michael Doyle. Together with Sims and Yamasaki, these individuals helped Alvarez connect with larger food resources so she could feed more families. 

Then, Karla, a young woman and student from South Philly, got in contact with Alvarez. Karla and her father had been running their own small-scale free grocery service to undocumented immigrant families in their area. Alvarez decided to join their projects, and they helped feed about 100 families altogether. Omar Martinez with GALAEI — a queer [email protected] social justice organization — volunteered to help deliver grocery boxes. It was on a delivery when Omar was approached by an older Black woman who inquired whether they were handing out food. Omar said she demonstrated a clear need, so he called Alzarez. “I know she’s not undocumented — ” Omar began, but was interrupted. “Stop right there,” said Alvarez, “if she needs food, we will give it to her.” Alvarez herself delivered a grocery box planning on her usual no-contact method. However, the woman stopped Alvarez on the front porch and gave her an electric air freshener: “This is for you. Please just take it. I’m so grateful.”

On another occasion, a woman — who was neither an immigrant or undocumented — called Alvarez at her office and said she didn’t have food for her baby. Alvarez quickly put together a care package and a gift card for baby formula. Afterward, Alvarez said this woman emailed her a picture of her whole family in front of a stocked refrigerator. In telling this story, Alvarez paused, becoming emotional. Regaining her composure quickly, Alvarez said, “It’s frustrating and scary to think that there are so many people [in this situation]. We’re supposed to be the greatest country in the world […] so where somebody came from or how the hell they got here, [should not determine] whether they deserve help or resources.” 

Alvarez demonstrates that this grocery service is for those in need. Her future plans include giving assistance to anyone who is food insecure. “Once we have it organized where the undocumented immigrant [grocery program] is stable,” said Alvarez, “I want to expand it to LGBTQ individuals who are facing food insecurities during this time and other high-risk populations. Anyone that’s HIV positive, we want to make sure we get food to them. We can’t roll it all out at once, but that’s the hope.” 

In the meantime, Alvarez is calling for volunteers to help pack up grocery boxes and deliver them throughout the city. They are ramping up to deliver weekly groceries to over 100 undocumented immigrant families. “If you have two to three kids,” explained Alvarez, “the grocery boxes are going to get you through a week, maybe a week-and-a-half at most if you stretch it.” 

Of the desperate situation facing many undocumented families during COVID-19, Alvarez said: “It’s gut-wrenching, but then you have to snap out of it and be excited about doing this work so that you can get more of it done. Or else, you’ll get into this headspace about how ugly it is that we live in a society that tells [undocumented people] it’s their fault [they’re going hungry] because they shouldn’t have come here and they knew better, they should have followed the law. I don’t care what they did, how they did it, if they have children — even if they don’t have children — they don’t deserve to go hungry.” 

Alvarez is currently accepting donations through CashApp: $dejalynn, Venmo: @dejalynn-alvarez, or through the WHCI website at: www.whci.org/support-us.

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