The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to everyone’s lives. For United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance (UTOPIA) it brought an additional mission to the organization.
Since 2009, UTOPIA has been led by and providing services for the queer and transgender Pacific Islander (QTPI) community in South King County. These services have included peer support, legal and immigration assistance, sex worker empowerment, community organizing, and healthcare access.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 pushed UTOPIA to add another service to this already impressive list: food access. The economic fallout of the pandemic left many individuals without the resources to purchase food, and UTOPIA stepped up to provide food boxes for 12 QTPI community members.
Once word got out that UTOPIA was distributing food, requests for assistance came flooding in from across South King County communities, and UTOPIA responded by opening their doors to anyone in need of food. Partnering with a network of food access organizations, UTOPIA collected food to package and distribute.
UTOPIA has since grown from serving 12 to over 400 households per month. And, UTOPIA now partners with DoorDash to directly deliver food boxes; hosts the Makeki food pantry; serves free monthly hot meals, and farms fresh produce on a quarter-acre of land.
Much of this growth is thanks to Toni Tupufia, food sovereignty program manager, who started at the organization as a volunteer and was hired in 2022 to further expand the food program. She coordinates food collection, partnerships, distribution, the Makeki food pantry, and delivery with help from a team of staff members and volunteers.
Makeki is a Samoan word for “market,” but as Systems, Policy, Environmental and Culture Change Program Director Adrianna Suluai puts it a makeki “is normally a space where people go to shop. But at UTOPIA’s Makeki, you’re not here to shop. You’re here to identify your needs and get what you need.”
Through UTOPIA’s unique partnership with DoorDash, community members do not have to physically shop at the Makeki to be fed. Deliveries are made twice a month to queer households from South Seattle to Puyallup.
UTOPIA’s food access work is not limited to providing food. In the past few years of becoming involved in the food system, the organization has realized the importance of connecting to all sides of the food system, from soil to state legislature.
Partnering with Living Well Kent, UTOPIA has been farming a quarter-acre of land outside of Kent for the past two years. The small farm provides some produce for the Makeki, but more importantly provides a space for the QTPI community to reconnect with their culture.
“We plant the farm because most Pacifica people are farmers and people who love to farm,” Tupufia said. “It makes people feel at home, and all the crops we create to share knowledge and have fun together. We find out ways not only how to farm, but to take care of the land. If we take care of the land, the land will take care of us. When we moved here to the United States, we were disconnected from the farms and farming our own food. Our farm is bringing back that practice to really help community stay healthy and live healthy lives.”
All this experience with food access, production, and distribution is pulling UTOPIA in a new direction of food sovereignty advocacy through education and policy work.
“The beauty of when we got the farm, it was also an opportunity for the community to engage in the farming and be a part of the process of where their food comes from,” Suluai said. “It’s the full perspective of what food sovereignty is. We can take this groundwork to inform city, state, national policy on food access. Food access that is healthy and culturally relevant. Culturally appropriate foods need to be highlighted in the way we promote healthy food and sustainable living.”
The future of UTOPIA’s food work is bright with the passion and commitment of the team. However, like many other social support organizations, the end of funding through the COVID-19 state of emergency is reducing their food and funding resources.
UTOPIA has seen increased numbers of households signing up for food box delivery at the same time as grants and donations due to the pandemic dry up. Food insecurity in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities was exacerbated by the pandemic, not caused by it, and continues to grow.
Tupufia is busy building out a network of partnerships with other food access organizations to be able to continue to grow UTOPIA’s food service. Suluai is working on the other end of the problem, advocating for policy changes to reduce inequities in food access as well as make farming a sustainable option for members of the QTPI community.
“There is a huge movement fighting for a healthier lifestyle, but we need to first make sure that community has access to food, and this can be done through different things: food pantries, farming, etc.,” Suluai said. “We’re taking this big issue and trying to minimize it to where we can really have solutions that are sustainable for our community. You don’t need a huge farm, maybe it’s something you can do in our backyard or whatever space you have. Not everyone has the privilege of outdoor space, a lot of [food production techniques] aren’t accessible, but how can we make growing crops, growing food a sustainable, easy access thing for people to do in practice regardless of what their space looks like?”
In just three years, UTOPIA has exploded onto the food scene, showing what is possible for food sovereignty. While it didn’t happen overnight, what UTOPIA’s success shows that it can happen faster than some might think with love and dedication to community.
To learn more or support UTOPIA, visit utopiawa.org.