The Brownsville Project Brings Change to the Brownsville Food Landscape

From by Rocco Pallin
The Brownsville Project Brings Change to the Brownsville Food Landscape

Food Tank had the chance to speak with Lucas Denton and Michael Ingemann of the Melting Pot Foundation. This international non-profit, started notable Danish restauranteur Claus Meyer, has developed culinary education and training programming in Denmark for former prisoners and in Bolivia for increasing access to healthy fare. In New York City, the Melting Pot Foundation recently kicked off its Brownsville Community Culinary Center Training Program, where students of the one-year program receive specialized culinary training and engage with the community to develop business plans for their own enterprises, with guaranteed job placement upon graduation.

We should note that the Melting Pot Foundation, US, Inc. is a separate entity from Melting Pot International. The two organizations have spiritual ties but are functionally distinct.

Food Tank (FT): The Brownsville project is one of several projects of the Melting Pot Foundation. What are the foundation's overall goals? 

Michael Ingemann (MI): The Melting Pot Foundation was formed a few years ago by Claus Meyer in Denmark. We saw that there was a huge opportunity to use food to change the world for the better. Initially, we had some projects in Denmark that focused on teaching prison inmates how to cook for the best chance at a job once they came out. But it was more than cooking: it was about giving people a chance to build their self-confidence and to learn a trait. We saw that as this program developed, it had one of the highest success rates in lowering the criminal offenses of former prisoners that might bring re-incarcerate them.

Next we moved on to the Melting Pot, Bolivia, where we saw that we could take some of the lessons from Denmark as well as from the starting of NOMA –  the restaurant that based completely on local, Scandinavian raw materials – and use those principles in a third world country, where the infrastructure isn’t comparable to that of Denmark. We again saw when we use food, when we use high culinary aspirations, we can actually change the way that people think about food, the food supply chain, how we make food, and how we eat food.

The underlying belief of our foundation is that people, through work with food, how we eat, how food is produced and who produces the food, we can change the world for the better. We’ve seen we can do that in many, many ways, but primarily through teaching and creating some opportunities to eat great food.

Lucas Denton (LD): One of the things I respect about the Melting Pot Foundation is that there’s careful attention to context, and that each project has been very place-specific in its development. I met Claus in 2013 just by happenstance, in line at a bakery in my Brooklyn neighborhood. At the time I was working with the New York City Commission for Human Rights and studying the racial dynamics of the rental housing market in New York City. When he told me about the Bolivian project and his desire to do something similar in New York, I told him that his work in Bolivia sounded fantastic, but that he might want to take a different approach in New York. He was very receptive to that, and we began a conversation that ultimately culminated in my formally joining what became the Brownsville Project team.

FT: Why Brownsville?

LD: We chose Brownsville for a variety of reasons, health and otherwise. It has high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. It contains the poorest zip code and has the highest murder rate in NYC, and also has the highest concentration of public housing in North America. So out of all of the various neighborhoods we surveyed in NYC with public health complications – South Bronx, East Harlem, East New York – it was clearly in the most need. These other neighborhoods all had a variety of programming already, whereas Brownsville had significantly less.

One of the things that we were all happy to discover about Brownsville was that it had a number of community residents doing fantastic work in food already, most specifically a woman named Brenda Duchene, who runs an organization called Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation. She runs five community gardens, two farmers markets, afterschool programs, children’s pageants, etiquette classes, a whole variety of programming that she does mostly on her own buck and entirely with the aid of community volunteers. Through Mrs. Duchene we quickly made connections with in Brownsville, we discovered this spirit of social entrepreneurialism that was astounding in its scope and effectiveness.

FT: Explain more about your community-centered and context-specific approach to planning the Brownsville Project.

LD: Organizations that conceive an idea in isolation and then seek to implement it in a systemically oppressed community often fail for any number of reasons, but often the failure is relate to the fact that they haven’t really consulted community members on the project. The problems communities face, their origins, and how they manifest themselves are quite complex, so we knew that we needed to regard community members as the experts, and consult with them intimately throughout every phase of development of our project. We also knew that morally and ethically it would be inappropriate for us to come from the outside and seek to impose some kind of healing regiment upon a community.

Everybody likes to use the word “empower:” it’s attractive, it rolls off the tongue. But what we believe and we have found to be true is that the residents of Brownsville already have the power to solve the problems that exist in this community on their own. What they don’t have is resources: educational resources, financial resources, structural resources. What they’ve been lacking is access to the resources that allow other communities to flourish. What I like to say is that we are providing access to resources so that the people with whom we work can fully actualize their potential in a broader system.

FT: How did you go about coordinating with and learning from the community to plan and implement the early stages of the project?

LD: The very first thing we did was meet with the community board, and ask them about the community’s needs. We explained that the resources we have are related to culinary education and food production, and we bounced ideas back and forth. In those conversations, we began to hash out this idea of a culinary school with an attached restaurant: the school to provide job training and the restaurant to provide ready access to fresh, healthy foods at an affordable price to community members.

Through a health impact assessment, a series of community meetings with community stakeholders and members, and selection of a facility site, we were met with enthusiasm, but also an emphasis on the community’s need for jobs. And at that point we began to flesh out the educational component.

FT: In what stage is the Brownsville Project currently?

LD: Now we have our plan and we’ve actually started training a small cohort – an initial cohort of 7 students. Very soon we’ll begin to build out of our facility on Belmont Avenue in Brownsville where we will have a restaurant with a 40-seat dining area that will serve a variety of foods influenced by narratives of elders in Brownsville and other healthy options. The community very specifically asked for foods that they don’t have access to in the neighborhood. Not just foods that are traditionally associated with African Americans or Caribbean Americans, but French food, or Vietnamese food, things of that nature.

FT: How have you gone about learning about the culinary traditions in Brownsville?

LD: In the fall of last year, a colleague and I began going into the senior center at the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville, which is the largest public housing complex in Brownsville, and interviewing the seniors about their diets when they were young. One thing we found in with seniors in the neighborhood is that their diets in youth were initially healthy, and that over the course of many decades of a lack of access to fresh foods, it became impossible to prepare the foods that they had once prepared. And a lot of culinary knowledge was lost generationally.

We got a few recipes, but in general it was a lot more colloquial: a pinch of salt, a thimble full of this. And then we worked with a team of grad students from the Berkeley Haas School of Business. They made two trips out to Brownsville and we collaboratively developed a method to distill from these narratives – from the ingredients that were described – menu items. Both in our restaurant and in our culinary education program, these recipes and these narratives will allow us to expose our students to French cuisine, Spanish cuisine, food from Guatemala, people whose African heritage passed through Brazil, as well as through the American south or the American north.

FT: How does the student application process work?

LD: I recruited three of the first seven students. They’re people who I met throughout the course of working and planning in the neighborhood. The other four came to us from word of mouth. In the future, we’ll be developing pipelines with other local organizations. There are organizations that do cooking demonstrations with young people, or provide basic certifications, like food handler certification or things of that nature, who we hope will send prospective students to us for our year-long program.

FT: How do you plan to source the restaurant and cooking school?

LD: We’re not going to use any processed ingredients whatsoever and we’re going to source as much as possible from local community gardeners. There really isn’t enough production to meet our expected demand at this point, so we plan to prepare one special seasonal menu item each week that is composed entirely of produce form the neighborhood. On the menu will appear the picture of the person from whom we got the recipe and their narrative. With the check, we’ll distribute the directions to the farmers market from which the ingredients can be purchased, as well as the recipe. Beyond that we’re going to get the best quality foods we can get for the lowest price, but it’s all going to be fresh.

FT: What response have you seen from the Brownsville community?

LD: Close to universal enthusiasm. We haven’t really received any push-back from the neighborhood, which kind of ran contrary to some other people’s expectations. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when we went in we didn’t lay out an agenda. We asked questions. And I think that has been really key to the foundation of our approach to the community: we are here to be of service, but we need you to be able to do it correctly. We need your help and participation. And people have really stepped up to the plate in an amazing way.

FT: What potential does this project have as a model for future programs and other cities?

LD: The training program is going phenomenally well. We were told to expect a sixty percent attrition rate and we haven’t lost anyone yet. Rather than replicating the model specifically, I think the approach is replicable: a site-specific approach, beginning with a health impact assessment, going through a whole process of community engagement and working with stakeholders from the community. That approach can be replicated.

MI: The question is still: how do we roll this out? We’re still in the early stages. I can see looking down the road this becoming a much larger institution within Brownsville and a catalyst in Brownsville. And if it does spread to other communities, finding the right way to replicate will be a cool thing.

FT: How can people get involved?

MI: There are plenty of ways to help out, and not necessarily just through monetary donations. Local residents and companies can be valuable partners and advocates. There are a lot of ways that people can get involved.

The Brownsville Project is now accepting student applications, and will open its 40-seat restaurant in the coming months.