From ‘Food Fights’ to Puzzles, Advocates Are Putting the ‘Fun’ in Abortion Funds

“In the face of abortion restrictions, what do we have to offer?”

Pancakes with whipped cream and fruit suspended in the air against a yellow and blue background.
Reproductive rights advocates are finding joy in raising money for abortion funds. Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group/Unsplash

The first thing you should know about the Food Fight for Reproductive Rights is that it isn’t an actual food fight. Rather, it’s a face-off between three local chefs and three local bartenders to make a small plate and cocktail combination. The winner takes home a Golden Uterus trophy, and all proceeds raised for the event are donated to abortion funds.

Launched by the Marigold Project, the foundation arm of Denver singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, the first not-actual-food-fight food fight was hosted at Block Distilling Co. in Denver in summer 2022. At the time, Marigold Project executive director Kari Nott didn’t grasp how radical the event would be.

“I don’t think I understood the impact it would have on people—not just those who attended, but who saw the ad for it and were like, ‘Oh wow, we could have fun, and also talk about abortion. We could raise a ton of money and have a blast and do it for abortion,’” Nott said. “Something that I think we’ve been encouraged to believe is to carry shame around or to whisper about [abortion]. What if we were just really loud and had a block party for abortions instead?”

Puzzles for abortion

These days, raising money for abortion funds doesn’t just take the shape of a silent auction or a bake sale: Across the country, they’re also fundraisers like a music and food festival or a Smash-A-Thon. People have even raised money for abortions in lieu of their wedding registries or by making and selling crossword puzzles, which Rachel Fabi, a bioethics associate professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University, does along with a few of her puzzle-making friends through her organization These Puzzl3s Fund Abortion, or TPFA. Since 2021, TPFA has raised nearly $200,000 for abortion funds.

Constructing crossword puzzles has been a hobby of Fabi’s since 2019. In 2020, a friend at the Baltimore Abortion Fund asked her to create a puzzle to help raise money for abortions during the National Abortion Access Fund-A-Thon—and TPFA was born. When Fabi was asked again to make a puzzle the following year, she enlisted her fellow puzzle makers to up the ante to a pack of 16 crossword puzzles.

“In the face of abortion restrictions, what do we have to offer?” Fabi said. “I can’t perform abortions. But what we can do is make puzzles.”

The packs involve work from a large team of volunteer puzzle constructors, editors, and test solvers across the country. There are two types of puzzles the group will offer—themed and unthemed. The themed puzzles feature some sort of wordplay centered around reproductive justice. As you complete the crossword, a message—or “revealer,” as Fabi calls it—will begin to unveil itself and explain the puzzle’s theme.

“Crosswords are an art form—they are expressive,” Fabi said. “They can have themes that speak to reproductive justice. People who have skills that can carry a message—if you have a hobby that can say something—I think that’s a great one to use for [fundraising].”

In 2021, TPFA raised $35,326 for the Baltimore Abortion Fund and nearly $30,000 for Texas abortion funds. According to Fabi, TPFA was on track to raise a similar amount in 2022 when the Supreme Court’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked, confirming that the justices intended to reverse the constitutional right to abortion granted by Roe v. Wade.

“It lit a fire,” Fabi said. “The donations started pouring in overnight. We basically doubled what we had made up til that point in a matter of weeks after the decision leaked.”

Many abortion funds experienced a similar monumental uptick in donations after the opinion leak on May 2, 2022. Robyn Neens, an abortion doula and the co-founder and program manager of Abortion Care Tennessee (ACT), recalls the “chaos” that ensued. ACT had hosted its first in-person fundraiser event just three days before and had raised around $3,000—a huge milestone for the young abortion fund that had only launched a few years prior in a state with some of the country’s most restrictive bans.

“The day after the Supreme Court leak, our PayPal was at $50,000 in donations,” Neens said. “And then that just kept happening. To the point where, the first few times, I thought it was a glitch.”

By the end of the summer, Neens said, ACT had close to $250,000 in donations, an amount she said is “game-changing money.” To put that amount into perspective, prior to the leak, Neens said ACT could only offer a maximum of $75 to $100 in funding to a handful of patients who were the most in need. Tennessee’s six-week abortion ban went into effect a few days after the Dobbs opinion was officially released in June, and the state’s “trigger ban”—banning all abortions without exception—went into effect 30 days later, on August 25. Abortion clinics across the state continued to see patients up until then, and all of the money ACT raised that summer was put toward those patients.

“There was a couple of weeks where one of the clinics weren’t even charging patients—they were just using our money to fulfill whatever they needed,” Neens said. “They could just see more patients because they weren’t having to do the paperwork of charging.”

Ask most people working for an abortion fund or raising money for abortions and they’ll likely tell you they want their jobs to not exist. They want to live in a world where raising money for abortions isn’t something they have to do.

“We don’t want to have to do this work,” Fabi said. “We would love to be making puzzles for fun reasons.”

‘We’re facing the reality’

Their work is more vital than ever. However, not only are these funds fighting against anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, but many also find themselves struggling to maintain the momentum from a year ago. Where fundraising efforts progressively fed a roaring fire around this time last year, the kindling for that fire has now petered off—all while the flame threatens to die.

“Now a year later, we’re facing the reality,” Neens said. “It’s this kind of head-spinning of like, ‘OK, OK. Where’d everyone go? Thanks for all the money, but we need this momentum to be increasing the way that these, like, costs and the way all of this is increasing.’”

It often feels like an uphill battle, but Ali Taylor, co-founder and executive director for the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, has found there’s still a way to see the joy and love in the work they do. In Arkansas, along with many other states, lawmakers are introducing anti-LGBTQ+ bills. Events like a local trans group, inTRANSitive, hosting a dance party on the Arkansas Capitol steps in January in response to these bills have inspired Taylor.

“It is hard to remember sometimes that we can do this work with joy,” Taylor said. “It’s so incredibly important to remind ourselves that we can’t do this work for very long if it’s drudgery. We have to keep an eye towards the positivity of the things we’re doing and remembering the people who need us and the people we’re helping. Things can get real dark sometimes, but we can’t stay down there or else we wouldn’t be able to do the work.”

Others have also experienced similar patches of sunshine amid the dreariness. Through her efforts with Food Fight for Reproductive Rights, Nott ended up finding and falling in love with her partner. She said they had been friends for a long time and bonded further through the work they did on this project.

“That’s what we’re fighting for—for everyone to be this happy,” Nott said. “It’s been incredible to watch the men in my life really show up.”

For some people, like Fabi, finding the joy in this work means using your own niche skill—like puzzle making—to contribute in a small way to a bigger cause. For others like Taylor and Nott, it means finding community in the fight for abortion rights keeps them motivated.

“I think a lot of us were feeling the shock of [the fall of Roe], and to be able to come together and be like, ‘Nah. We’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna have fun with it. And we’re gonna show up for each other,’—it changed me completely as a person,” Nott said. “It changed the way I understand what my role [is] in social movements. And it’s made me a lot more ready and willing to dig into the long haul work of this movement.”