Fighting Hunger, Water Shortages, COVID-19 and Climate Chaos in Tijuana (OPINION)

Sep 1, 2020
12:29 PM

Photo provided by Contra Viento Y Marea, Tijuana

TIJUANA — This city on the U.S.-Mexico border is facing considerable urgent crises. The coronavirus pandemic. Climate change. Food shortages. Water scarcity.

The pandemic is out of control—hundreds of people are becoming ill and dying every single day. Simultaneously, the negative impacts from climate change endanger the bioregion. We face greater numbers of extraordinary weather events like severe summer droughts, extreme heat waves, raging wildfires and flash floods.

The problem of hunger in an already impoverished inner city is becoming more widespread. As a side effect of the pandemic, the prices of staple foods like tomatoes, chiles, and eggs doubled. Even modest increases in food costs pushes Tijuanenses living in extreme poverty over the edge. Water rationing and shutoffs happen regularly. It’s outrageous that safe drinking water must be purchased. We need water to live.

Tijuana’s sprawling communities of migrants, and other vulnerable groups are already feeling the economic impacts of both climate change and the pandemic. These crises call for new paradigms to drastically minimize our ecological footprint and reduce the catastrophic impacts of climate change disproportionately affecting frontline communities.

Climate change is certainly caused by humans—therefore it’s up to all of us to act. Tijuana’s migrants and refugees are innovating community centered solutions to feed the hungry. Contra Viento Y Marea (CVYM), the organization I work for, is an example of a successful mutual aid project prospering in a new “sharing economy” born out of climate chaos and COVID-19. CVYM’s inspiring work demonstrates vulnerable people are not powerless, but actively organizing to save themselves and Tijuana’s bioregion. 

CVYM or “el Comedor,” is a community kitchen, donation center and rooftop garden. Using transnational solidarity, direct action and mutual aid tactics, el Comedor goes beyond doing the work of a “soup kitchen.” It serves as a frontline crisis response center where anyone from the neighborhood can come for hot meals and assistance with basic wound care, or survival goods like hygiene products and clothes. All our meals, goods and services are free.

For over a year and a half, el Comedor has relied on transnational donations and crowdsource fundraising to provide prepared food to the hungry and water to the thirsty. We help everyone, no questions asked. Primarily, el Comedor delivers life-saving meals and drinks for migrants from all over the world, including refugees seeking U.S. asylum as part of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program. We also serve recently deported migrants, homeless people, sex workers, low-income families, as well as physically and mentally disabled people. We uplift those in need with whatever resources we can acquire through grassroots community organizing.  

Photo provided by Contra Viento Y Marea, Tijuana

El Comedor’s mission is to provide nutritious, delicious home cooked meals to people living in Zona Norte/ Zona Centro. Access to healthy food and water are fundamental human rights. We serve 600 meals with “agua fresca” (fruit flavored water) per week. Prior to the pandemic, we served six days a week, twice per day, delivering an estimated 1,800 meals weekly. No one should go hungry simply because they are unable to afford food. No one should go thirsty or forgo washing their hands during a pandemic because they are unable to pay for clean water. Nutritious food and clean water are sacred. CVYM’s volunteers are finding innovative ways to respond to the disastrous consequences of food and water shortages. One of the main reasons people knock on our door during off hours is to ask us for a glass of water. We don’t turn people away because it could mean the difference between life or death.

El Comedor collects “mermas” or vegetables discarded by local produce markets, then transforms them into hearty meals. Several neighborhood markets toss away vegetables too damaged to sell but are still edible. We convince them to donate the vegetables to us instead. This direct action tactic addresses the capitalist problem of food waste that allows tons of good food to get thrown in the garbage when poor people in overcrowded inner cities are literally starving. Moreover, we recycle used clothing by collecting, washing and redistributing it. This keeps useful clothing from pilling up in landfills. (The textile industry produces the fabrics for clothes by consuming and contaminating exorbitant amounts of clean water.) Recycling clothes is a great way to reduce water waste. 

From firsthand experience, CVYM’s volunteers connect the dots between climate chaos and disaster capitalism, to the growing numbers of climate refugees fleeing the global south, to mass hunger, and water shortages in ever expanding city centers. El Comedor’s volunteers are Central American migrants and refugees who came to Tijuana with the last caravan, with the exception of myself. (I’m the daughter of Mexican migrants.) They know from their 3,000 mile journey north, how serious the problem of hunger is for those who face it.

Some volunteers are “climate refugees.” They left Honduras since climate change fueled droughts made it impossible for them to support themselves on their family farms. All volunteers care for the people we serve who are part of our own communities. We refuse to sit back to watch our neighbors perish from hunger. A migrant who regularly eats here said he’s more afraid of starving to death than dying from the coronavirus. We fight against all odds to accomplish our mission. We pioneer new tactics and rely on traditional tactics too. Cultivating a garden is a classic way to combat climate change. Incredibly, growing a single tomato on the rooftop cuts gas emissions; it takes gas to transport the tomato to the market then to our kitchen. 

The rooftop organic garden is a cornerstone of our space. We aim to grow the best quality food in an environmentally sustainable way through a vertical urban garden. We organically grow jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, and herbs like oregano to cook with in our kitchen.  We will grow more fresh vegetables and herbs especially as food prices in Mexico continue to rise. The garden vegetables are fresh, non-GMO, and don’t require gas transportation to deliver them. Growing our own produce also means we contribute less plastic waste from food packaging or bags. We believe organic rooftop gardens are a smart solution to curbing skyrocketing food prices as well as augmenting green space in a heavily polluted, mostly concrete neighborhood. To better manage our water use we save dishwater to sprinkle it on our garden. We collect rainwater to irrigate our plants. 

Additionally, we join forces with local food suppliers, businesses, nonprofits, and compassionate individuals to fulfill our mission. Weekly, we receive 20 kilos of fish fillets donated from an environmentally conscious seafood supplier, Sea Sabia. Every three weeks, we obtain tamales from the restaurant La Antiguita. We bring diverse community leaders to the table to address the urgent issue of hunger in our neighborhood. 

During a pandemic, access to health care is vital. CVYM pulls together resources from across our communities to confront the pandemic head on. We partner with a health care nonprofit, Refugee Health Alliance (RHA), to promote their local free clinic, Justicia en Salud. Prior to the pandemic, el Comedor hosted a bi-monthly free medical clinic with RHA’s medical professionals. Currently, we provide two meals per week outside the clinic to ensure patients don’t go hungry. The group Friendship Not Fronteras (FNF) collaborates with several migrants residing in shelters to hand sew and deliver face masks to us to hand out. In accordance with municipal and state laws, el Comedor maintains extensive sanitary protocols. For example, all our meals are served to-go. We cater through a window or place a table outside the front entrance to ensure there’s ample air ventilation. We give antibacterial hand sanitizer, establish a hand-washing station outside, and give face masks before distributing plates. We ask folks to maintain a safe distance from each other. We rigorously clean everything. It’s paid off as not a single volunteer has shown symptoms of COVID-19 so far. 

El Comedor’s volunteers are rising up with Tijuana’s marginalized people. We invite you to join our struggle. The future looks bleak if we don’t act now to collectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change while dealing with the effects of the pandemic, food and water shortages. Confronting these challenges individually is impossible, but working in sync across entire communities makes a world of difference.

Global warming is the most pressing issue of our time. Mutual aid projects like Contra Viento Y Marea are leading the way forward at the local level. We pioneered a new paradigm for operating a community kitchen—one that centers our people’s well being and bioregion above profits. We have auspiciously collected hundreds of pounds of vegetables and clothes designated for the trash, while working hand in hand with various community groups to feed our neighborhood. This can be replicated in any inner city. Anyone with a rooftop can create an organic garden to make their neighborhood healthier while immediately addressing climate change. It’s now or never. Globally, we are reaching a point of no return. The time to act is now.


Devi Machete is a migrant organizer and part of Contra Viento Y Marea, El Comedor Comunitario in Tijuana. To consider a donation, visit the organization’s GoFundMe, Venmo (@tjrefugee-support) or Cashapp ($comedortj).