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Na'ilah Johns: Community Leader, Hunger Fighter

For over 20 years, Na’ilah Johns has tirelessly lead the emergency food cupboard at Masjidullah in West Oak Lane, coordinating donations as well as deliveries across Philadelphia. We spoke with Na’ilah, the program’s founder, about the rewards and challenges of keeping a wide-reaching, inclusive program moving forward.

Coalition Against Hunger (CAH): Give us a bit of background on the food program at Masjidullah. How did it get started?

Na’ilah Johns (NJ): I am a retired social worker, and the program came out of an experience I had with one of my clients over 20 years ago. During an assessment with a homebound senior, I asked if I could take a look around her kitchen to see if she had enough food. I quickly realized that there was very little, more for the cat than for her. I asked my supervisor at the time if I could bring the woman food during my next follow up, and was told that that was not part of our job. It got me thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—if this woman does not have food, she’s not likely to be happy or healthy in other areas of her life. So, I asked our resident imam at the time if the masjid could help me feed older people, and he was very supportive. That’s how our program was born.

CAH: What are the requirements for becoming a client?

NJ: When we started out, our target population was homebound seniors, particularly those who had issues with food at the end of the month before the next month’s SNAP benefits came through. That’s why we started delivering our food, which we still do to this day for all of our clients no matter what Philadelphia zip code they live in. We continue to feed seniors, as well as women, children, families, and single people all over the city. One of the things Muslims believe is that the best way to reach a person is to feed them. You can be friend, enemy, or stranger, but if you tell me you’re hungry, I’m going to feed you. My motto is that you just need to be human and say you need some food, and we’ll feed you. I do have an assessment form, but it’s primarily just so I know who we are feeding and where we are feeding them. We’ve grown in part through referrals from the Coalition Against Hunger, who has been a wonderful partner and friend for over 15 years.

CAH: With clients spread out across the city, how do you coordinate deliveries?

NJ: I have an incredibly dedicated group of ten volunteer drivers. They show up like clockwork on the last Saturday of each month, many of whom called the Coalition Against Hunger looking for ways to help. One of our most committed groups is the Double Lite Posse Motorcycle Club, who was connected to us by the Coalition. They are absolutely phenomenal, especially Michelle Jackson—everyone calls her by her motorcycle tag, “Honey.” In addition to volunteering, she helped us win a Penn Cares award to support the program. Our drivers are all kind, friendly, and compassionate—our clients love them. We also have a great group of ladies who pack our bags. It’s volunteerism at its best.

CAH: What type of food do you provide, and how is it sourced?

NJ: We deliver a bag of groceries usually containing fresh chicken or beef, fresh or frozen vegetables, some type of rice or pasta, and a few other staples. We work with a retired registered cancer nurse, Wajeehah Mujahid, who made it a priority for us to serve healthy, fresh foods that will be nourishing for our clients. We also tailor bags to people’s circumstances. Some of our clients don’t have access to a kitchen or are unable to cook, so we make bags of only canned goods and prepared foods. It is our mission to meet people where they are.

This masjid pays for much of the food we deliver, but we are also connected with Philabundance and have been taking advantage of their free food program through Amazon. One of our volunteers, Samir Muhammed, is always looking for new sources of donations. He connected us to the Philly Food Rescue, which provides food donations through Fresh Grocer, and recently, with Michael’s Wholesale Bakery. Every month for years, a dedicated volunteer named Allen Chestnut drives his truck to Restaurant Depot to pick up cases of food. It’s a truly amazing network, all dedicated to putting a dent in the hunger issue in Philadelphia.

Interviewed by Rachel Brown