A Public School 55 student enjoys her second cup of salad at lunchtime. The salad was grown at the South Bronx school by students. Photo by Elizabeth Arakelian
The fluorescently lit cafeteria of Public School 55 in the South Bronx sparked to life as kindergarteners and first-graders file inside. Lunch ladies shush the students as they buzz with excitement: lunchtime today is special.
Although the kids’ lunch trays have the usual items of chicken and milk, even cookies for dessert, the star of the show is the side: a spinach and kale salad with cherry tomatoes and shallots, tossed in an oregano vinaigrette dressing.
Most students receive their cups of salad with a smile. Others push it away with a crinkled nose.
“There are tomatoes,” said one brown-haired boy in disgust.
Another first grader is on her third serving, the vinaigrette still slick on her full face.
“It’s good,” she said. “It’s really yummy.”
The gourmet option wasn’t shipped in or catered by a guest chef. It was grown by the students themselves. While gardening in schools is nothing new, at PS 55 students are farming 37 varieties of fruits and vegetables in the most unlikely of places.
The K-5 school sits in the middle of the South Bronx housing projects in the unhealthiest county in New York state. The concept of fresh and natural greens meeting the mouths of developing children was a relatively foreign one, but the Green Bronx Machine now has students planting, cooking and eating produce all within the same city block.
Green Bronx Machine is a nonprofit that has partnered with the South Bronx school to repurpose an unused fourth-floor library, in a 100-year-old building, into a green sanctuary called the National Health and Wellness Center, which opened in January 2016.
The nonprofit is the brainchild of Stephen Ritz, the founder of Green Bronx Machine and self proclaimed CEO or “Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County.” The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country, but where most see poverty, Ritz sees opportunity.
There are also outdoor gardens at PS 55, which sit behind a chainlink fence in the shadows of the towering brick projects. PS 55 is a zone school, so the students who attend it live in the South Bronx. The area has an abundance of unhealthy options and few fresh ones, said Ritz, who calls the cheap, corner store snacks a “MESS”.
“MESS is what I call Manufactured Edible Single-serve Substances,” said Ritz. “This is a very food challenged community. I mean you’re going to see a lot of very heavy kids walk around this community.”
One in four children in Bronx public schools is obese, according to the New York City Department of Health. But the bright red doors at PS 55, and the garden beds that flank them, have become a welcoming sign for students. Behind them there will be hands-on learning and soil-stained clothes. Students that enter the school won’t just go to class, but they will also learn that they have the power to decide what goes on their plate.
“We find that when kids do cooking or grow vegetables and learn about the food on their own terms, that they’re much more likely to eat it,” said Bill Yosses, former White House Executive Pastry Chef and Green Bronx Machine partner. “ They’re learning this about themselves. They own it.”
What started as an afterschool program in the Bronx in 2006 has since blossomed into an international movement with Green Bronx Machine chapters opening across America in Florida, Washington, DC, California, Vermont and Missouri, said Ritz. The organization is also partnering with 20 schools in Canada and Ritz has scouted opportunities in Mexico and Dubai, as well.
Green Bronx Machine has gained international attention and Ritz has taken students to be honored at the White House and featured in TED Talks. His work has led him to meet Pope Francis, present in the United Arab Emirates and he was a 2015 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.
While Ritz has been successful in drawing attention to the needs of the South Bronx, for the past year and a half he has remained rooted at PS 55. It is here Ritz fosters growth in the students and their gardens. The indoor vertical farming towers in the National Health and Wellness Center burst with kale, chard and other lettuce varieties year-round. Soon, students will plant fruits and vegetables in the outdoor garden boxes. During harvest, they take home pounds of vegetables each week.
But farming at PS 55 is more than a fun activity — it’s actually school work. The Green Bronx Machine curriculum is aligned to Common Core educational standards, so the students are learning age appropriate skills in a hands-on way.
“It’s fractions, it’s decimals, it’s ratios, it’s proportions. It’s the art and science of growing vegetables aligned to content area instruction that allows everybody to benefit instead of just being a fun place where they come and cook and get their hands dirty,” Ritz said.
Plus, the students take on leadership roles.
“I mean I have plant police, leaf monitors, PH patrol, everything that you see here is kid maintained,” said Ritz, gesturing to the vertical farms.
The fourth-floor also boasts a mobile cooking station, equipment to record cooking demonstrations, and bicycles where kids can pedal to generate energy to charge their phones, or see how long they have to ride to burn off a soda.
Ritz even implements a reading to plants program where students sit by the vertical towers and read to the leafy greens. At lunch, Ritz swaps the plants out for bigger, more developed plants and tells the students “‘You did such a good job! Look at what you’ve done!’ So the kids really feel great and they want to perform,” Ritz said.
While the real benefit is students’ appetite for healthy and fresh produce, standardized test scores are also on the uptick and attendance has increased to 97 percent, according to Ritz.
Since its inception the Green Bronx Machine has also linked up 2,200 graduated students with jobs at places like Whole Foods and Fresh Direct.
When students aren’t learning in the National Health and Wellness Center, it is used for adult workforce development. Students and their families visit and tend to the garden throughout the year, as well.
“You literally see parents and community members shopping there for groceries,” said Ritz of the outside gardens which remain open 24/7 in the summer.
While the ultimate goal of the Green Bronx Machine is to move students up the food chain, the nonprofit is also shaping students’ self-esteem.
Fifth-grader Zuhaiti Arias said she likes being acknowledged for her hard work with the school’s gardening. “People are going to get to know me better and see who I really am,” she said.
At PS 55 choosing swiss chard over chips may be a small success, but it could lead to something greater, which students like Arias are reminded of each time they enter the National Health and Wellness Center and see the phrase “Si Se Puede” painted on the wall.
“That means ‘Yes we can’,”explained Arias. “ It means that we can do anything in the world if we believe in ourselves and do hard work.”
Take a trek on the E train to the end of the line and you’ll find a place where Indian garments meet ripe Caribbean fruits – where a tropical rhythm harmonizes with Eastern religion. This is Little Guyana, an Indo-Caribbean Community in Richmond Hills, Queens.
Most of our conceptions of Guyana, a small English-speaking country on the Caribbean Sea, might be admittedly flimsy. Think deep jungles, wide rivers, or perhaps the notorious 1978 mass murder suicides of Jim Jones and members of the Peoples Temple.
But as this New York City enclave reveals, it’s a complex and multi-cultural place about as rich and spicy as its cuisine. More than five races make up Guyana, among them the indigenous Amerindians, Europeans, Chinese, Africans, and Indians. When the country became independent from Britain in the 1970s, political and racial turmoil brought tens of thousands of Guyana’s Indian community to the US.
With a population of more than 140,000, the Guyanese are the fifth largest foreign-born population in New York City. They’re South American, but not Latino. They’re a people who look Indian and yet speak a Caribbean-inflected English.
In order to decode this community, look no further than Pritha Singh, Director of the Rajkumari Cultural Center, a Guyanese arts organization located on Little Guyana’s Liberty Avenue.
“The people who are here, we’re the real grassroots people. And we brought all our stuff with us,” said Singh, referring to the thousands of agrarian Guyanese here who keep their culture alive through folk art, Hinduism, Indo-Caribbean Chutney music, and of course, food.
At Sonny’s Roti Shop, patrons like Allen Bassant come for Indian flatbread called roti and oxtail curry. The neighborhood connects him back to his home. “You meet a lot of old friends and when you walk down the streets you feel like you’re in Guyana on Liberty Avenue,” said Bassant.
by Christina Dun
Sarah Sanneh, cofounder of Brooklyn eatery, Pies n Thighs, talks about her delicious business.
One group is looking to make a change to cafeteria menus in New York City public schools. The group says Muslim students are being treated unfairly because they aren’t given a food option that they can eat.
The Bangladeshi American Advocacy group will head to Albany this week to try and convince state legislators that halal food should be provided by NYC public schools.
Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, chicken and other meats unless they are prepared according to certain religious guidelines. Currently, NYC schools don’t offer a certified halal food option.
But members of the Bangladeshi Advocacy group said the vegetarian options aren’t acceptable because they typically only consist of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and occasional chicken dishes. According to the group, this results in students not being fed adequately and feeling left out from the lunchtime experience.
An estimated 13 percent of NYC public school students are Muslim and that is one reason many Muslim groups have recently pushed the school system to add Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, two Muslim holidays, to the school calendar. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would support adding the days to the school calendar, but when the NYC Department of Education was asked whether they would support adding halal food to schools, they didn’t give a direct answer and instead said that many schools already offer vegetarian options.
A Styrofoam container of hot soup, a loaf of bread, an orange, and a carton of milk may not seem like much of meal, but for the increasing number of homeless people living in New York’s streets, these meals provided by the Coalition of the Homeless’ Grand Central Food Program is often their only meal of the day.
New York City’s homeless population continues to increase in 2014, and with this year’s harsh winter overpopulating many of the available shelters, more and more homeless people are forced to live on the streets.
“Most of the individuals we serve work, but can’t afford housing,” said Farnell Williams, who has been volunteering for the non-profit program for the last 20 years. “And when they have five or six children and shelters won’t accept or only take in a certain number, they don’t want to be separated from their kids and so they’re left out on the street.”
Williams, 42, of White Plains, West Chester, has witnessed the increasing numbers during his many years with the program.
“The numbers of people we serve out on the streets have increased, and it’s unfortunate that in this completely wealthy city, we have this many homeless people,” said Williams.
In order to estimate the number of homeless individuals who live on the streets, the Department of Homeless Security conducts a yearly Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, or HOPE, with volunteers searching the city’s streets, subways, and parks to locate those who permanently live in these areas.
The numbers are used to allocate resources like shelters, outreach assistance, and drop-in centers throughout neighborhoods. However, restrictions the department must place during HOPE can leave a number of individuals out on the street overlooked.
“We don’t go into private businesses, residences, or buildings,” said department worker, Tonie Baez. “Particularly on a night where it’s very cold, you’ll see that there are large group of people inside these places that may be homeless and are going inside to keep warm.”
Volunteer safety is a crucial concern for HOPE, leaving dark alleys or areas that feel unsafe unchartered territory.
“It’s likely that volunteers aren’t finding individuals in more secluded locations because we don’t encourage them to go into anywhere that’s dangerous,” Baez said.
For the coalition’s program assistant, Bryan Moran, having neighborhoods where outreach is limited makes getting food to these areas crucial.
“We visit stops like South Ferry with people sleeping in the Staten Island ferry terminal, and we don’t see a lot of community outreach, soup kitchens, or mobile soup programs out there,” said Moran. “I mean even in the Upper West Side, a neighborhood known for it’s wealth, there’s still a lot of food insecurity in the neighborhood.”The Grand Central Food Program’s mission is to continue delivering hot meals 365 days a year, having continued its daily routes to uptown, downtown, and the Bronx throughout blackouts, Hurricane Sandy, and this year’s freezing temperatures.
“I don’t consider going out in these conditions crazy, because with the people we’re feeding, they’re in crazy situations,” said Farnell. “We’ll go home to a warm home, but these people are still out on the streets.
Bleecker’s Finest Deli may be the only open deli in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy struck the city last night.
The 24-hour deli at Sullivan and Bleecker in Greenwich Village was inundated with hundreds of locals from Soho and the Village buying egg sandwiches, hot drinks, and other canned goods in the early hours of the morning.
Due to a Con Edison explosion caused by Hurricane Sandy last night, all power below 29th street in Manhattan was wiped out.
“I don’t think anyone expected it would be this bad,” said Maryanne Lee, 52, of the West Village, who was lining up out the door. “I’m just grateful to find a hot cup of coffee to drink.”
The owner of the store, Hasan Alsharafi, 29, of Brooklyn, said he prepared for this by offering to pay his employees double-time and by setting them up in a nearby hotel late last night if they decided to work.
“We thought something like this might happen,” Alsharafi said. “Not many people have gas stoves at home to boil water. So we wanted to help out the neighborhood.”
Alsharafi drove over fresh goods like milk and eggs from another deli he owns in at 44th street and 10th Ave, where the power did not go out.
“I could replace what had to be thrown out this morning,” he said. “As a small business owner, I guess I have a unique advantage.”
What was a headache for residents, became a jackpot for small business owners like Alsharafi, who managed to sell out of most of his store’s canned, dry and packaged goods in a matter of a few hours.
“I’m lucky, but it wasn’t easy,” he said. “You won’t believe how many people tried to break into the store last night.”
Chef Ari Taymor excitedly described what’s for dinner: smoked oysters, house made tofu, honey-dijon buttermilk sauce, egg-potato emulsion. He could be reading off Willy Wonka’s grocery shopping list—the items are offbeat, intriguing, and wildly creative.
As a chef, Taymor does not lack enthusiasm, talent or dedication. What he lacks is a kitchen to cook in. Until he finds one, he and his team are operating a vagabond eatery called Alma Food and Wine, hopping from location to location, cooking out of storefront kitchens around Venice Beach, Calif., and trailing their growing clientele of foodies along with them.
The crew of three chefs and one managing partner have been looking for a suitable restaurant space to move into, slogging through a forest of red tape to obtain licenses and permits needed to open a restaurant in Los Angeles. So far, no luck.
But instead of waiting for the real estate stars to align, the team decided to fire up the grills and get started. They asked the owner of a café on Rose Street called Flake, if they could take over the space in the evenings (the café closes at 3:30) and got permission.
Voila! Five nights a week, the neighborhood coffee shop transitioned into a prix fixe, farm-to-table haven of cookery. Creamy soups, fresh vegetables and savory main dishes started coming out of Alma’s ad-hoc kitchen.
“We were working off of two induction burners and a little tiny camp stove,” said Taymor. “There was no oven, no heat, no gas.”
Despite roughing it, the food was good enough to get attention from the Los Angeles Times and other outlets. Accolades poured in and so did investment offers.
But finding a space of their own remained a problem. Attempts to lock in real estate were met with licensing snafus, long waits for permits, and other deal breakers. So on a recent Friday, the team took over the after-hours at the Brick House, a café with a full kitchen at the end of the posh shopping corridor on Abbot Kinney Road.
“We’re on the move,” said Dinnelle Lucchesi, the managing partner of the roaming project, as she polished silverware in preparation for their first dinner service in the new space.
“We don’t have a place for our stuff,” Lucchesi said. “We keep our things in our cars, our houses, our own fridges.”
Life was not always so up in the air for Taymor. He and his team of two chefs were running the kitchen at Saluté, a wine bar in Santa Monica. Taymor was recruited by the general manager, a friend who promised free-reign of the kitchen.
But when ownership changed hands, the culinary range became more restrictive and Taymor felt stifled.
“We want to cook the food that we want to cook,” said Taymor. “So for us, we were in a place where we couldn’t do that. We felt it was better to take a risk, step out on our own, see if our food could stand up for itself.”
Alma’s food is a personal twist on modern American cooking. In coming up with weekly-changing menus, the team is driven mostly by what’s in season and what’s for sale at farmers markets. But the ideas for what to do with those ingredients come from experiences and nostalgia.
“We think about stuff that we like to eat, ingredients that are coming into season, stuff that our farmers are proud of and we use them to express memories that we have of food and of places we’ve been, places we’ve worked, people who have inspired us,” said Taymor.
His childhood spent on the coast of northern California was the spark for celery root, smoked lardo, pine and apple soup. The dish was meant to invoke the Santa Cruz mountains, the scent of the ocean, pine trees and camp fires.
Moving locations every few weeks can make it more difficult to come up with new menu items every few days. But there are upshots to starting off as a roving feast The Alma crew has been able to test the restaurateur waters and see if they could secure financial backing without significant risk.
“It’s given us time to nail down our concept, get our team flowing in a really efficient way and we’re not putting ourselves out there, vulnerable for bankruptcy,” said Lucchesi.
Also among the benefits are the people enjoying the group’s offerings.
“We’re building a community around the name, and the concept, and the food,” said Lucchesi. “They are a part of us literally building our dream.”
Before dinner is served on their first night in their latest borrowed kitchen on a recent Friday, the chefs are preparing. They call out to each other in a secret language of measurements, ingredients and techniques. Bins clatter, spoons bang, knives chop, a blender whirs as the group gets accustomed to their new surroundings.
If they don’t find a permanent space soon, Taymor estimates Alma will work out of the Brick House Café for another month or so. Then the team will have to find a new kitchen to camp out in.
“We’re just these people kind of looking for a home,” said Lucchesi. “That’s what it comes down to.”