Mango mutual aid: Tampa Bay tradition thrives through backyard gardens

Good Neighbors, a Pinellas based nonprofit, redistributes excess fruit to communities and individuals in need.
Heather Brooke, left, co-founder of Good Neighbors, picks mangoes from Arminda Da Conceicao’s garden on July 21 in St. Petersburg. Brooke will donate the mangoes to those in need through the organization’s pop-up events.
Heather Brooke, left, co-founder of Good Neighbors, picks mangoes from Arminda Da Conceicao’s garden on July 21 in St. Petersburg. Brooke will donate the mangoes to those in need through the organization’s pop-up events. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 9|Updated Aug. 10

Each year, Arminda Da Conceicao’s mango trees drop more fruit outside her Pinellas Park home than she can eat or give to her family.

Heather Brooke was scouring Facebook when she saw a post from Da Conceicao’s daughter offering her mother’s mangoes for free. So in the record heat of a Friday afternoon in late July, Brooke arrived with her husband, two teenage kids and a volunteer for the harvest.

They were hit by a thick, sweet overripe scent. The ground was littered with mangoes, shades of orange red and brown. The trees were full of greener ones.

Brooke is the executive director of Good Neighbors, a nonprofit that collects fruit and vegetables from residential gardens and other foods from partner restaurants and stores that would otherwise go to waste. It then distributes the collected goods according to want and need.

Brooke and her husband got the idea to start their nonprofit a few months before the pandemic started, after they saw restaurant workers at the end of their shift throw out massive amounts of food. They thought: What if they collected that perfectly good food and got it to people who could use it?

The effort blossomed during the pandemic and Brooke’s methods evolved to include home gardens and fruit trees, new partner businesses and organizations. Her mission grew, too, and soon she found herself embracing her role forging connections between strangers.

“Yes, there’s the surplus food and it’s important to use it and not have it go to waste,” Brooke said. “But it’s also becoming our goal to have that be a tool to help build relationships and have communities be together and checking in on each other.”

Though it wasn’t her intention, Brooke also found herself carrying on a Tampa Bay tradition. She created her own form of mutual aid.

Just as normal safety nets proved inadequate to providing aid, Brooke had figured out how to help people with plenty share their bounty with those who had little.

Time to harvest

Da Conceicao told the group to start collecting the mangoes on the ground and to leave the bruised or rotting ones to fertilize the trees. At 69, tending to a vast garden mostly by herself, she’s come up with tricks to make the work easier.

She leaned against one of the smaller trees as the group got busy. The Brookes and Joan Hartsough, the volunteer who came along, placed plastic milk crates on the ground and split up, debating which mangoes were still good and whether each tree held a different variety.

Heather Brooke told Da Conceicao most of the mangoes would be put out at a table the next day, at one of their partner organizations, the House of Beer, that holds monthly food giveaways. She figured families might want them because hers certainly did; her kids had been talking about their favorite dessert, mango sticky rice, since they walked into the garden.

She expected most to get picked up there, but said she planned to individually give away any remaining ones. There was a mother living in a hotel room nearby where they had just dropped off groceries — maybe they’d take her some.

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“Good,” Da Conceicao said. “I don’t need it.”

She then handed Brooke a tall rod with a wire claw and basket on the end. A fruit picker, she explained. If they’re going to good use, they should get the ones in the trees too.

The hunt

Countless trees and gardens throughout the Tampa Bay area produce more fruit than their owners can handle.

Brooke searches for them on social media when she’s not promoting food distribution events or calling for more volunteers on the Good Neighbors account. She said she doesn’t jump at every offer because she wants to make sure other community members who see the posts get first pick. She waited about three weeks before reaching out about Da Conceicao’s trees.

People share, on a small scale, without their help, she said. Her group comes in to facilitate the bigger sharing, the harder distribution, to the people who get missed.

Fruits usually go to grocery giveaways, where anyone can pick them up if they have the time and space to cut them up and enjoy them. Prepared foods often go to people living in hotels or elderly people. Bulk goods sometimes go to other organizations that prepare cooked meals and giveaway bags.

One of the first pictures on the group’s Facebook page shows Brooke squatting to talk to an older homeless woman sitting on the concrete. She was one of the first people she helped, Brooke said, someone she saw when she was driving around to buy her own groceries.

“Nobody’s noticing where’s the breakdown in our society,” said Brooke. “Connecting with some of these people offering resources, seeing what’s needed.”

Brooke’s organization works with a variety of others to fill that gap. They have three programs — “Nourishing our Neighbors,” which conducts giveaways in vulnerable communities, like senior neighborhoods and mobile homes; “Food with Dignity,” which focuses on feeding unhoused people; and “Community Feeding the Community,” which connects other organizations with local businesses to help them make use of surpluses. Often, Good Neighbors uses their organization’s vans to deliver and do pickups for that one.

Tapping a tradition

Brooke’s initial goal was to help vulnerable people by providing them with resources that are already available but not getting put to use. Turns out it’s a practice with deep history in Tampa Bay.

She’s doing what the immigrant societies in Ybor City were founded to do more than a hundred years ago: mutual aid. Mutual aid as a form of community organization where people come together to meet each other’s needs.

Beginning with the Centro Español, founded in 1891, the immigrant societies in Ybor City were created as mutual aid societies for their respective communities. Originally, they were meant to combat the hostility of the existing Anglo-American community in Tampa, but with time they came to provide a variety of services.

Gary Mormino, professor of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida, said that their scale and scope made them different from the existing immigrant societies in other parts of the country. They had functioning hospitals, served as meeting spaces, and most even had cemeteries.

Mormino said the clubs operated about a dozen “cooperativas,” as well.

“They were like grocery stores, and if you belonged to a certain society you could join and get what you needed,” Mormino said. “I guess it’s like a Costco today, except a very modest scale. So they had mutual aid in medicine, and social solidarity, and also groceries and things like that.”

The organizations thrived through the first half of the 20th century, but eventually their mutual aid services lost popularity. Most of them are still functional, just in a different way, said Arminda Mata, the CEO and curator of the Ybor City Museum society:

“They still have memberships, not near as many as they once did, and they still rent out spaces for events and things like that. They still work, just more as social clubs than mutual aid societies.”

During the pandemic, new mutual aid efforts rekindled in smaller form as people became more aware of their neighbors’ struggles, and financial insecurity rocked the country. Projects like community fridges, which accept donations and are free for anyone to take what they need from them, popped up across the country. There were at least two in the Tampa Bay area in late 2021.

Embracing her role

Brooke’s group practices mutual aid in a very practical sense: It connects people with resources with nearby people with needs. The larger goal is to rebuild a sense of community She said the group’s network of volunteers and partner organizations is growing.

“Although I’m not from Florida, I grew up in a hometown where this is also happening in New York,” said Brooke. “My family has a history of the same sharing. We owned a small store in our very small, rural town, and at that store, people that needed food, we would just give it to them on the honor system. So I learned this kind of from my family growing up: If you have it and someone else needs it, share it.”

In 2021, about a year after she started Good Neighbors, she was able to open a branch in upstate New York.

She knew about the term “mutual aid” from her husband’s work as a firefighter, who practices it by helping out other departments and communities in times of crisis. She hadn’t considered her group a part of the longer history until she really sat down to learn about it.

As she loaded the slightly sticky mangoes into crates, Da Conceicao brought them plastic water bottles filled with homemade mango juice — the only recipe she really has to use as much fruit as possible. When they were done, she walked them out, pointing at the mango tree in front of the house that they didn’t get to.

“Those aren’t ready yet, but please come back and take them.”