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How Community Gardens Became Outlets of Innovation for Former Restaurant Workers

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Community gardens’ non-hierarchical models are a foil for many of the city’s restaurants

A wooden plantar box filled with dirt and green leafy plants that are growing out of the enclosed space
The cooperative model of community gardens is a welcome respite for some hospitality workers
Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Many New York City hospitality workers — thousands of whom remain out of work or are struggling financially, and a growing number of whom are food insecure themselves — are nevertheless finding ways to support their local community gardens, lifelines for many neighborhoods, using skills honed in kitchens. And though many have prioritized community-oriented work long before the pandemic, now with added time on their hands, the gardens provide a way for chefs to embed more deeply in their neighborhoods and learn even more about what kind of food support is actually needed.

Some are raising funds for the greenspaces with cooking pop-ups, incorporating produce from community gardens onto their menus, conducting mutual-aid meal drop-offs, or volunteering their time to harvest the grounds. Along the way, chefs are especially now finding that the cooperative, non-hierarchical model of community gardens are a welcome respite from the way the city’s restaurant kitchens have historically been run.

Chef Tara Thomas started volunteering at Phoenix Community Garden in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the beginning of the pandemic, an area particularly plagued by unequal access to grocery options. Thomas previously had several hospitality projects in the works, including helping to open a cafe inside a new boutique hostel from retail-slash-coffee shop Sincerely, Tommy owner Kai Avent-Deleon; a new bar project with clothing store The Break in Greenpoint; and a “solar-powered cafe project” called Premium Blend in Clinton Hill. All of the projects have been put on hold due to the pandemic.

After volunteering multiple times a week at Phoenix, she started getting involved with helping curate their Saturday market stand with the goal of bringing higher-quality items that tapped into her culinary world connections, such as L’Imprimerie baked goods. “People in the community were asking for bread,” she says. “EBT can be really oppressive with what people have access to, so I wanted to make sure there were more options.” She’s even collaborated with Tart Vinegar, using crimson clovers harvested at the garden, with the bottles raising funds for Phoenix.

A representative for Phoenix, Mark Leger, tells Eater that he was energized by the fact that the garden has gained more volunteers than ever during COVID. Many of the volunteers formerly worked in restaurants.

“Our garden has never been more immaculate and weed-free,” Leger says. “I’m sometimes almost struggling to find things for our volunteers to do. Luckily, due to the fact that we already had a year-round food box program, when we were called upon to scale up [during the pandemic], few other gardens had operations that could do that. So we were really set up to serve our community.”

Community gardens recently inspired a bake sale, too. Prior to the pandemic, chef Diane Chang had packed up her catering business, Eating Po-Po’s, and moved to Mexico City with the intent to open her first-ever restaurant called An-An. But as many stories now go, those dreams were put on pause.

Suddenly unemployed and back in Bed-Stuy, she began hosting pop-ups again to raise funds for causes that align with her vision for restaurants: one that uses cooking as an extension of compassion. A recent cake pop-up, for which she made black sesame slices with a pineapple molasses jam, had proceeds that went to fund Phoenix’s efforts to ensure elderly community members are getting fed, especially important during COVID.

A slice of darkly colored cake laid on a green and yellow serving platter in the shape of three corncobs
Eating Po-Po’s black sesame pineapple molasses jam cake
Courtesy of Emma Orlow

Likewise, at Hunky Dory, working with Crown Heights’ Imani Community Garden is not only a sustainable means for owner Claire Sprouse to reduce her restaurant’s waste, but also an opportunity for flavor potential. A recent New York Times article detailed how, when Sprouse stops by to drop scraps off for the community garden’s chickens, she’s always sure to check out what edible flowers or herbs are available. “We made a soft serve with chocolate mint and donated 50 cents from each cone back to the garden,” she told the publication of her relationship to the greenspace that she’s had since opening, a part of her larger sustainability-driven mission for the eatery.

In Bushwick, a new free meal initiative called Cafe Forsaken from former hospitality workers Leanne Tran, Raina Robinson, and Moonui Choi, also incorporates community gardens into its supply ecosystem. Operating out of the hip neighborhood bar Honey’s, Cafe Forsaken initially began making meals for essential workers at the beginning of the pandemic and has since expanded to other groups of people in need.

Together, the trio has prepared thousands of meals, working with community gardens — such as Phoenix and Bushwick City Farms, as well as the Ridgewood mutual aid space the Woodbine — in the process. They’ve used the gardens as drop-off sites and have used their produce, complemented with herbs grown on Honey’s rooftop and rescued items from food supplier, Natoora, which neighbors the bar, as well as Smallhold and Treiber Farms.

Though the team’s inclination is to create nourishing dishes that skew more “experimental,” visiting the gardens while the free food is being distributed has helped them really understand what the community wants, rather than trying to impose their own taste preferences upon them.

“It’s such a fine balance—we have flavor notes we want to hit and I want it to look just as beautiful as anything we’d do in a different kind of pop-up,” says Choi. “I don’t think that should be a luxury. Everyone deserves that.”

Cafe Forsaken, Chang, Thomas, and Sprouse’s work are a part of a wave of potential blueprints for a new kind of hospitality world — such as DeVonn Francis’s pop-up and the upcoming Auxilio Space and Daughter coffee shop. The owners hope to lead with more empathy and equity, taking cues from the sustainable safe havens that community gardens have been for so many.

Disclosure: This author has worked for Eating Po-Po’s in the past.