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A blue cooler has a cardboard sign taped to it. In marker, the sign reads: “Welcome to the solidarity economy. Take what you need, give what you can.” Clay Williams/Eater

How Black Organizers Fed the Occupy City Hall Protests With Restaurant and Homemade Meals

A look at the local organizers, homemade McMuffins, and pop-up bodegas that are powering demands to defund the NYPD

For the past two weeks, hundreds of people have camped out in Lower Manhattan’s City Hall Park, demanding that the city cut at least $1 billion from the NYPD’s 2021 budget, in light of the nationwide protests against police violence. The movement started on Tuesday, June 24, with just a few dozen people. Overnight, it grew into a group of a few hundred, who in the subsequent days and weeks were sustained by a tight-knit network of chefs and volunteers that mobilized to feed the protesters — often at 2 a.m. and always free of cost.

“We feed everyone except for cops,” says activist Lucy Saintcyr, who has helped organize the vibrant food scene within City Hall Park.

Occupy is a protest, though anyone who has ventured into Manhattan’s City Hall Park in the last two weeks will know that at the heart of the movement, there is also a vibrant community. At its height, the movement’s organizers created a daily schedule of “teach-ins,” instructional conversations in which folks could come together to call their representatives, debate rent cancellation, or discuss alternate models of policing. There are nightly quiet hours (1 a.m. to 7 a.m.) with sleeping bags available for those who needed them. There’s a community garden, a communal library, a mental wellness tent, and a space for drinking tea.

And, of course, there’s also lots of food.

A person stands behind a makeshift snack table, which advertises several Venmo accounts on a cardboard table. Bags of chips are piled on the table and stored underneath in plastic bins.
Five people hold one another, posing for a photograph in front of a table with Dunkin Donuts coffee on it

Not having to worry about where their food is coming from means people can focus on other issues, Saintcyr says, and she’s relied on her past restaurant industry experience to keep people fed day and night.

For the last six years, Saintcyr has worked as a general manager, sommelier, and wine server in various NYC restaurants, including Cafe Collette, Frenchette, and the Michelin-starred Oxomoco in Greenpoint. As the founder of the Saint Supper Collective, she’s leveraged her connections in the hospitality industry to bring “elevated, hot meals for people who are tired from marching, tired from giving speeches, or tired because they might be low-income, unemployed, or without home,” she says.

An overhead photograph of a tin of yellow, housemade muffins
A person wearing plastic gloves holds a disposable plate and uses a plastic spoon to scoop food onto a piece of bread
To the left, two gloved hands hand out a disposable paper plate with a bagel and jam on it
A pair of hands squeeze a bottle of purple jam onto an open-faced egg bagel

Some of the roughly 2,000 meals that the Saint Supper Collective distributes daily have been purchased from local grocery stores or catered from Black-owned businesses. Many others — including a memorable two-day ratatouille, “soul-restoring” coconut curries, and batches of handmade dumplings — have come from chefs who work in popular restaurants like Cervo’s and the Fly, in addition to those at which Saintcyr has worked.

While the occupation of City Hall Park is now winding down, at its height, hot meals were served all day, Saintcyr says. The highest demand for food, though, occurred between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., when marchers returned to City Hall Park from evening protests. Saintcyr says she would need to order anywhere from 60 to 80 pizzas at a time for delivery, all of which were purchased through donations.

In between the hot meals, protesters have been subsisting on a large collection of granola bars, bagged seed mixes, and chips, all of which are either donated or purchased from grocery stores by activist TMG, who prefers to identify herself by the acronym and has helped Saintcyr organize the food service at the protests. TMG’s group, Nourish NYC — which distributes free food and supply kits, in addition to providing cash grants to NYC-based activists — has been working to distribute these snacks at protests.

A woman wearing a black bandana, white shirt, and black pants poses for a photograph. Behind her, an umbrella is visible.
Lucy Saintcyr, founder of the Saint Supper Collective
Three people stand in front of a grocery store, pushing two shopping carts filled with snacks and other supplies
TMG, center, organizes volunteers on a run to Costco in Sunset Park

“People are donating hundreds of boxes of gluten-free, plant-based, and vegan snacks,” Saintcyr says. She wakes up each day with “hundreds upon hundreds” of requests with volunteers asking to drop off food.

While the food services at Occupy City Hall have grown into a well-functioning unit, it didn’t start that way. In the first few days of the occupation, Saintcyr and TMG say that while many hot food items were being dropped off, no one had organized a system for intake.

“When I got to the park, I saw trays of hot food resting on the ground and on park benches,” Saintcyr says. “There’s lots of risk for contamination and food waste there.” Together, Saintcyr and TMG developed what they call “the line,” a network of several tables and refrigerated coolers from which they could distribute and receive food — with separate areas for hot meals, vegan food, coffee and beverages, snacks, and intake.

An outstretched hand extends a Kind granola bar, while other out-of-focus granola bars are visible in the background of the photo
A hand holds a container of pumpkin seeds, which rests on a table next to rice crackers, granola bars, and other snacks
A hand reaches into a blue cooler of ice to grab a bottle of apple juice
One of many coolers that organizers use to keep drinks and perishable food cold
A person in jeans and a black t-shirt holds a reusable paper cup in a hand with plastic gloves. In their other hand, they hold a large container of Dunkin Donuts coffee.
In an early-morning pinch, organizers say that they will occasionally cater from brands like Dunkin’ Donuts

Though the Saint Supper Collective and Nourish NYC have set up several tables at Occupy City Hall, Saintcyr clarified that she’s not just there for marchers or protesters. “What keeps us there is knowing that the local people in that area need it,” she says. The bulk of the people that Saint Supper feeds are homeless, low-income, or unemployed, people who have heard about the organization through word of mouth, says Saintcyr, who was homeless for six years of her life. “It’s a lot of families and individuals who are coming by on behalf of families but might be too nervous to let their children see that they are receiving free food.”

More than two weeks after its start, Occupy City Hall is now winding down, and protesters didn’t quite get what they wanted. (Though the New York City Council technically made the $1 billion budget cut, activists say that the money was shifted between city departments, rather than reinvested into underfunded communities.)

On July 4, the initial conveners of the Occupy City Hall protest announced via Instagram that they had started to “shift our energy back to our communities, neighborhoods, and mutual aid networks.” Citing safety concerns and recent arrests at City Hall Park, Saintcyr and TMG shared that they had started to scale back their involvement with the protest as well, and would no longer have 24-hour tables set-up in City Hall Park. Instead, the organizers say they plan to return to their communities and increase their presences at protests in Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively.

Snacks are spread out on a table, with a colorful handmade sign that reads “Please sanitize your hands before touching the food”
Volunteers with the Saint Supper Collective and Nourish NYC are required to abide by food safety standards, including wearing gloves and masks
Two handmade signs hang from a makeshift snack table. One reads “The people’s bodega take & share” in all capital letters, while the other urges people to text a phone number for updates
The People’s Bodega distributes free snacks, water, and dry goods

Saintcyr, TMG, and their organizations are accepting donations to continue their work. Donations to the Saint Supper Collective can be made through Venmo (@lainsley) or by contacting Lucy Saintcyr via Instagram direct message (@1optimistleft). Donate to NourishNYC through Venmo (@nourishnyc), CashApp ($nourishnyc), or PayPal.

Photographer Clay Williams spent a day at the Occupy City Hall protests, documenting the organizers, housemade McMuffins, and pop-up bodegas that have been powering demands to defund the NYPD. These photos were captured on the afternoon of June 30, the day that the New York City Council voted on its 2021 budget.

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