Stacked food boxes. (Unsplash/Chuttersnap)

Feeding an Island

HARBOUR ISLAND, Bahamas — “We’re having such a great time. There’s no way that whatever’s happening all the way over there is going to affect us,” said Teynarae Newbold, 31, reflecting on the looming COVID-19 pandemic last March. 

Days later, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced the entire country would be going into lockdown, “effective immediately.”

Newbold, a food and beverage professional working in Harbour Island, was one of several residents who rushed to establish the Briland Food Bank — a donation-funded volunteer organization determined to feed every islander needing assistance, including many North Eleutherans living across the bay from Harbour Island.

British designer and long-time Harbour Island resident India Hicks, 53, said the entire community quickly joined the effort, including Harbour Island’s high school seniors, police force, and restaurant and hotel owners. 

Hicks said that food packing and distribution days became the positive force Harbour Island needed during an extraordinarily discouraging time. During these community events, she said there was a DJ, a bishop who would lead the group in prayer, singers and cookouts to feed the volunteers.

“Everybody wanted to turn up because it was going to be fun,” she said. 

Although the food bank’s assistance was desperately needed and welcomed by the community, Hicks said Harbour Island and North Eleuthera’s underlying food insecurity issues became apparent. 

“There was a whole layer of the community that actually was in need of food regardless of COVID,” she said. 

A study conducted by Hands for Hunger in 2019 revealed that 37% of Eleuthera’s surveyed population worried about food access within the previous 12 months. Forty-two percent reported they were only able to access a few types of food in the same timeframe.  

“During the first distribution, we distributed to 300 people and about 100 households with a hodgepodge of inventory,” said local school principal and fellow Briland Food Bank organizer William Simmons.

To determine the initial list of distribution recipients, Simmons said his team gathered a list of people from the local churches. Then, he said they cross-referenced each list to eliminate duplicates and build a master spreadsheet. 

“Anybody who was left out came forward when they found out that emergency food was available,” Simmons said. The organization also served the North Eleutheran community of Blackwood, which Simmons said houses “undocumented people of Haitian descent.”

With no access to government-provided unemployment benefits or food stipends, Simmons said the Haitian community’s situation was “dire.” 

“We created an incredibly efficient system of procuring and distributing food at a really comprehensive level, and at a really inclusive level, that made sure that no household was overlooked,” he said.

During the Briland Food Bank’s fundraising efforts on (organized by existing community organization Br-Island Responsible Development), the food bank raised $647,372 before closing donations. Tourists contributed many of those dollars.

During the height of the pandemic, when the Bahamas temporarily reopened its borders, Simmons said the food bank also received financial support from the Bahamian government, but it wasn’t enough to support the food distribution efforts through the pandemic’s duration.

“Yes, we’re resilient. We’re organized. We got ourselves together. We distributed our resources effectively and fairly,” Simmons said. “At the same time, we were only in a position to do that because of the mercy of people who valued their vacations here.”  

“How do you continue to live like that?” he asked.

Now that the country has re-opened for tourism, India Hicks said tourism “has gone bonkers” and the Briland Food Bank has paused its operations.

“We’re like a suburb of America suddenly,” she said. “Everybody now wants to come to the Bahamas because they feel safe.”

Although Hicks said the post-pandemic reopening is a particularly exciting time for the Bahamas, she urged the government to plan for long-term prosperity versus a temporary (and potentially harmful) economic boost. 

For the first time, Harbour Island’s world-renowned Pink Sands Beach is s a cruise stop for Crystal Cruises guests — a reality many Harbour Island community members oppose

Hicks said inviting hundreds of visitors to the island at once could overwhelm the tiny island as it recovers from the COVID-19 induced tourism lull while undermining why people come to Harbour Island in the first place.

“Where will they all go to the loo?” she prodded in a recent Instagram post. 

Despite tourism’s sudden uptick, Hicks and Simmons said the temporarily defunct Briland Food Bank and its donors are prepared to feed Harbour Island and North Eleuthera once again.

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