In the first days after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, when New York was at its most vulnerable since September 11th, the food community showed its true colors, coming together to help in ways that inspired us. The New York Food Truck Association marshaled its members to feed communities in need; two baker's gung-ho relief efforts inspired others do something more. Even restaurants in the dark did whatever they could to feed their neighbors.
One year later the initial clean up is over. But the spirit behind these relief efforts has endured and, in some cases, evolved to effect lasting social change.
In the first month after Hurricane Sandy, the NYC Food Truck Association (NYCFTA), an advocacy organization for food truck operators, served 350,000 meals to New Yorkers in need—all for free. These meals were served out of 60 different food trucks at 20 separate distribution points. The organization's efforts quickly received massive public support via an Indiegogo campaign, backing from sponsors like JetBlue, and the Mayor's Fund of New York.
They weren't alone. Downtown chefs hosted fundraiser dinners to power their own food truck in the NYC Food Flood project. But the efforts of NYCFTA were among the most effective and expansive, thanks in no small part to food trucks' mobility. This fleet of mobile kitchens and fridges had almost instant access to the city's most devastated communities.
Unlike the typical packaged and canned food used in relief efforts, these trucks, with trained cooks behind the line, served something more thoughtfully made with higher quality ingredients. There's more to this than just a source of calories: their efforts went to show the deeper, emotional nourishment that communities needed as much as subsistence.
Another food first responder wasn't from the industry at all. Occupy Sandy volunteers were among the first people on the ground after October 29th. The food arm of the organization was formed with the leftover infrastructure of Occupy Food, which volunteer and restaurant veteran Ethan Murphy had been involved with since its first days at Zuccotti Park. Feeding hundreds, sometimes thousands of demonstrators helped prepare Occupy for the monumental task of feeding New York's flooded, powerless neighborhoods.
Murphy says that when Sandy hit, volunteers instantly started pouring in. Occupy's relief efforts started at a Sunset Park church that they quickly outgrew; additional hubs cropped up on the Lower East Side, Bay Ridge, Coney Island, and Staten Island. In an interview, he talked about the magnitude of the operation,and the dedication of the volunteers who gave powerless, sometimes homeless residents something resembling a normal Thanksgiving.
"That first 48 hours around Thanksgiving, I don't think we slept at all. We were doing constant production and we sent out 7,000 meals, I think. At Bay Ridge alone, we did the math at one point and it was over 200,000 people fed. They continued for months after I left, so I'd say easily half a million people were fed."
Murphy expressed pride in what Occupy accomplished, but he did share some reservations about how resources were acquired and the importance of ensuring sustainable supplies. "Here we are cleaning up after this enormous environmental problem and with all of our relief we are still participating in this non-sustainable process. For instance, we received a pallet full of Chef Boyardee ravioli—just horrible, generic stuff packed with sodium. And this is exactly what I said: 'we're adding insult to injury.'"
After months of relief work, Murphy moved on from Bay Ridge. He found himself in the Rockaways, drawn there by WORCS (Worker-Owned Rockaway Cooperatives), a direct offshoot founded by the Occupy organizers in the Rockaway. Every Sunday for three months, they met with five different co-ops to help them flush out their business plans. Ideas included a pupuseria, construction co-op, and a people's market.
"That's where I think Occupy does great work: empowering community members to do their own work, engaging people and getting them involved," Murphy told us. "It's not about the organizers who are there to assist. It's about the community speaking to its own needs."
Murphy has since moved on to another offspring of Occupy Sandy, Public Domain. Born out of mutual observations on the power that food has to bring people together, it follows the tradition of old public houses as community centers. The group's goals are twofold: to reduce the enormous textile and food waste of restaurants and to provide a space that supports activists, artists, and organizers.
Founded immediately after Sandy to provide relief to a neighborhood some compared to "New Orleans after Katrina," Shore Soup has seamlessly transitioned into a greater and long-lasting project of addressing food and economic inequity in the Rockaways.
Robyn Hillman-Harrigan and Lillian Gerson, who built Shore Soup on the skeleton of their summer Shore Fruit boardwalk operation, spent the summer serving 200 meals a day out of a donated food truck. Most of the produce they used was donated, allowing Hillman-Harrigan and Gerson to keep food and packaging costs to $150-300 a week, and they hired a local youth to help them run a truck. Their menu was oriented around a trifecta of sandwiches, salads, and smoothies, with healthier takes on familiar foods. So in place of PB&J with sugary peanut butter and overly-processed jam, you'd find almond butter with homemade strawberry jam.
For Hillman-Harrigan, feeding and bringing the Rockaways better, healthier food is just as vital—and indistinguishable from—revitalizing these neglected communities. But it will take more than a restaurant to do so, and Hillman-Harrigan is tackling the neighborhood's lack of food access in a vertically integrated fashion. This summer, she brought the neighborhood its first CSA, secured a plot of land for a community farm, and ran nutrition classes for locals.
With their lease for the food truck up, Shore Soup is moving into the next stage of development: a pay-as-you-can restaurant and community center. When it will open depends in part on how much money they can raise at their October 23rd benefit at the Bowery Hotel.
"It frustrates me that I can't fix every problem out there, but the things that affect us and comfort us the most are these small human acts. That shared experience is invaluable," Hillman-Harrigan said. "Being able to eat healthy food and getting a meal is that reminder that you aren't alone."
In Red Hook, Added Value Farm focused on preparation for future disasters. In the first months after the storm, founder Ian Marvey delayed his own rebuilding in order to aid the local community. Through December, they partnered with GrowNYC to establish pop-up markets stocked with donations from upstate farmers and local consumers. The lack of electricity didn't stifle demand for fresh produce, as they moved about 14 tons of produce in that month of markets. Marvey saw this an example of the power of a meal.
"There is something very healing and wonderful about the ability to, even in a dark home with a headlamp or flashlight, cook and eat in your own space."
In January, Added Value started a proper farmers' market in Coffee Park, began nutrition education classes, and got State Agriculture and Markets to issue coupons so residents could supplement the produce they were getting through their SNAP benefits. Added Value then began a community food assessment, visiting every retail establishment in the neighborhood that sells food to see what they were selling then and before, and what the impact was. A second residential survey followed, of roughly 4% of the neighborhood, to find out what the effects of the storm were, where residents were accessing their food, and what their food system would ideally look like.
Added Value has taken additional steps to turn itself into a community resource in the event of another Sandy. As we wrote last week, they have been installing a solar power array and were recently awarded a grant for five mobile storage containers. "We're trying to simultaneously expand our work to bring food into the community and make sure we're doing that in a way that is about preparedness for the next event," Marvey said. Added value has now repositioned itself to address the effects of global warming on a local scale in Red Hook.
From free meals served at food trucks to volunteers making sandwiches to farms and restaurants helping rebuild communities, the people behind these efforts share a keen awareness of the power of a hot meal. It isn't just about feeding hunger. It's about healing neighborhoods and people, addressing deeply rooted social problems, and engendering lasting change, one bowl of soup at a time.