Tampa Bay's Alyssa Hernandez utilizes her nonprofit to help a New Orleans service industry affected by COVID-19

Hernandez played a key role in Ybor City art collective MF Arts.

click to enlarge Tampa Bay's Alyssa Hernandez utilizes her nonprofit to help a New Orleans service industry affected by COVID-19
Sarah Becker Photography

Just over a year ago Alyssa Hernandez (pictured above) and her partner Matthew Holland founded a nonprofit called No Hunger Nola (stylized “NOLA”). Its mission was to utilize excess produce from their community through pickling and fermenting, while also advocating for sustainability and food justice through policy and partnerships. You may remember Hernandez, a Tampa Bay native turned New Orleans resident, as being a key player in Ybor City’s MF Arts. She’s now studying Policy Economics & Public Health at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In the last 13 months since its inception, the nonprofit assembled partnerships with organizations like Top Box Louisiana and Liberty’s Kitchen. Top Box is an affordable grocery service that works with SNAP participants and delivers to some of the worst food deserts in the city, while Liberty’s Kitchen is the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s teaching kitchen, empowering at risk youth to follow culinary careers. 

“Plugging in with both of these organizations early on really allowed us not only to listen to some of the more nuanced needs of the community from those already in the fight, but also to identify what gaps we could help to fill in the local food economy,” Hernandez told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Hernandez realized No Hunger Nola could diversify its efforts by launching On the Fly, a meal kit relief program for service industry workers and other affected workers in the area.

On the Fly has distributed 1,300 meals which were made possible by donations from eight major restaurants and hotels alongside a handful of smaller donation recoveries. 

“Truly, even those of us who were lucky enough to feel mostly secure before this, I think have really realized how little it can take to turn somebody’s world upside down,” Hernandez added. “It’s really driven this sense of everybody being in this fight together, and given way to what we (No Hunger and our partner orgs) keep calling ‘solidarity, not charity.’ It's truer now than it ever has been for most of us, and people are really connecting with that.” 

Such donations wouldn’t have been made possible without No Hunger spreading its roots and growing its network over the last year prior to the pandemic. Hernandez explains that the businesses that she hadn’t gotten the chance to connect with or faced administrative pushback from were easier to get ahold of under the pandemic circumstances. 

“Under normal circumstances, there’s a lot of back and forth communication, administrative approvals, and forms to be submitted before we start taking in recoveries,” she explains. “With the shutdown, I put a call out for donations through our network, created a form to consolidate requests, and within the first two days we had filled our entire storage space.”

But why jump through hoops and push forward for a cause while the nation was coming to a standstill, threatening the security of people’s livelihoods? Because the experience of not only being a service industry worker, but also struggling with food insecurity hits home for Hernandez.

“I’ve worked in the service industry my entire life, but I’ve also been on the other side. I’ve been homeless, and struggled with hunger; I’ve even been arrested for trying to steal food before,” she says. “Going back to work in restaurants after those experiences is what really drove me to study food insecurity in the first place, and what made me want to work in food recovery, so this program in a lot of ways was the culmination of a lot of seemingly scattered pieces that, for me, have always been connected.” 

Other than this mission being personal for Hernandez, it is an extremely beneficial cause within New Orleans’ culture which thrives on tourism dollars and the health of the bar and restaurant concepts.  Hernandez tells CL that when the shutdowns began, just about  every person she knew lost their jobs overnight. 

“This has obviously been a common theme in all major cities,” Hernandez says, “but the problem with the service industry is that its workers aren’t normally connected to any type of traditional charity or food relief efforts.” 

The nonprofit co-founder explains that this type of impact on service industry workers echoes a larger part of debunking the stigma around food insecurity. According to Feeding America, almost one in six people in New Orleans struggles with hunger. 

“Most of those people don’t look anything like what we traditionally perceive as those who go hungry, such as the homeless population,” Hernandez says. “They were students, working parents, and the elderly; and now, they’re food servers, musicians, rideshare drivers, and retail workers, too. The list goes on.”

click to enlarge Matthew Holland working at New Orleans' Liberty Kitchens. - Matthew Holland
Matthew Holland
Matthew Holland working at New Orleans' Liberty Kitchens.

Liberty’s Kitchen—a youth development program is designed for 16-24 year-olds who are looking to start or speed up their career—offered space for a No Hunger team consisting of 10 chefs and volunteers to assemble kits while adhering to social distancing protocols. 

From prepping kits and meal distribution to coordinating meals with other local organizations, Hernandez was problem solving while building her network all under the stress of a global pandemic. 

She worked with the GNO (Greater New Orleans) Caring Collective, Familias Unídas, and Cattail Cooks to help expand On the Fly’s impact to the most vulnerable members of her community, who were often homebound 

“We also served as a resource in securing fresh produce, which can be especially valuable when you’re dealing with food insecurity and barriers to fresh food access,” Hernandez said.

How can Tampa Bay take cues from the response of not only Hernandez’s On The Fly initiative, but the brothers in arms of fellow nonprofits? We need more than the harrowing efforts of Feeding Tampa Bay mobile food banks and on-site food pantries. Not to mention Meals on Wheels which is in constant shortage of drivers delivering hot meals throughout the city. 

This pandemic has taught us that we need to be proactive rather than reactionary. What types of systems could we have built in place to keep our service industry workers from hanging in the balance when the safety of the restaurant industry is at risk? With the threat of a second wave of outbreaks on the horizon, how can Tampa Bay come together and help communities that are struggling with heightened food insecurity due to this pandemic? 

Remember, while we’re in the heated debate of delivery app commission percentages and restaurant protocol (while these are important topics) we must not forget the woes of service industry workers who are at risk of job and food security, or, like millions of other Floridians, have been laid off and aren’t sure where their next paycheck is coming from. Although this task may seem daunting, Hernandez shares a bit which sparks hope for those looking to follow in New Orleans footsteps.

“We’re all in this fight together, and the evolution of this solidarity movement has allowed the city [of New Orleans] a solitary voice and platform to voice its needs and goals,” she says. “And if I’ve learned anything through all the chaos that has been this pandemic, it’s this; nobody knows what the community needs better than the community itself.”

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