Seeds of distrust planted among post-Sandy food relief groups

Bureaucracy pits food providers against each other on New York's Rockaway peninsula

Rockaway resident Todd Huckabone was evacuated from his home after Superstorm Sandy. Every Monday, he receives a fresh, organic meal delivery from the non-profit group Shore Soup.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — Several weeks ago, Todd Huckabone looked out his fourth-floor window above the Rockaway shoreline in Queens. A chain of black sandbags reminded him of the boardwalk destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. And something else caught his attention: dark humpback whales feeding along Rockaway Park, the midpoint neighborhood of New York City’s baguette-shaped Rockaway peninsula.

Last year, on the third day of Superstorm Sandy, the National Guard carried Huckabone down the pitch-black stairwell of his seaside apartment, then did the same for his wheelchair. He was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he joined other storm refugees in a conference room turned shelter.

The storm changed things for Huckabone, who lost his natural mobility in middle age to primary lateral sclerosis. Because it took him three months to return home after Sandy — the elevator was the last thing to be fixed — his part-time aide had to find other work, and his sense of community was damaged.

“Without the boardwalk, we don’t have that place to meet,” Huckabone said. “People would go there and walk their dogs. I know a lot of people from just sitting out there, so I miss it.”

In the context of a slow rebuilding process — and questionable spending of $1.77 billion in federal aid — persistent gestures of neighborly aid take on special meaning. One such gesture arrives at Huckabone’s door every Monday, via bicycle and volunteer labor. It is a batch of soup made from scratch the night before, paired with fresh-baked bread and the occasional salad or fruit and cheese. Huckabone pays nothing for this service, which has replaced the “really horrible”-tasting commercial meals-on-wheels he used to receive.

The soup comes from a small collective, Shore Soup, formed by two women who moved to the Rockaways a year before Superstorm Sandy. The team’s dedication and smarts have since earned it significant attention from the media and foundations, and now, a city-owned community garden space in the Rockaways. But what started as a promising allocation of public land was soon marred by a series of errors by the city’s Parks department, breeding conflict between Shore Soup and Culinary Kids, an older food-justice group on the peninsula.

Without the boardwalk, we don’t have that place to meet. I know a lot of people from just sitting out there, so I miss it.

Although both organizations had done Sandy disaster relief and were focused on bringing organic food to the Rockaways, they knew little of each other until a few months ago — when the Parks department tried to move Shore Soup onto land already occupied by Culinary Kids. This bureaucratic misstep produced rumors and conflict and came to symbolize a larger, post-disaster drama.

For Robyn Hillman-Harrigan of Shore Soup, post-Sandy relief turned into full-time work cooking healthy soups for her community.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

When the storm shut down the Rockaways last October, Robyn Hillman-Harrigan and her business partner, artist Lilian Gerson, used a small generator, a camping stove and the tricycle from their summer fruit-kebab stand to cook and transport warm food to freezing neighbors. Soon, a rush of post-storm voluntarism filled Hillman-Harrigan’s apartment with donated food and kitchen equipment and willing cooks.

Once the emergency was over, Hillman-Harrigan continued working with donated produce and volunteers to cook fresh, organic, handcrafted soups for local residents in need. As part of the young, arguably gentrifying, newcomer class to the Rockaways, she wanted to do some good in her community.

 “There’s a lot of young people who are crossing through the (Rockaways’) different terrains and getting involved with the surf culture or skateboard culture, and breaking those racial divides,” she said.

Shore Soup entered a new phase in the spring: It secured seed money to rent a commercial kitchen and office space and pay small salaries to Hillman-Harrigan and part-timer Lei Zhao. It began taking sign-ups for weekly deliveries of free soup and, over the summer, operated a pay-what-you-can food truck. It set the goal of opening a brick-and-mortar, pay-what-you-can restaurant in the Rockaways, for which it raised nearly $30,000 through Kickstarter.

The idea dated back to Hillman-Harrigan’s experience in Australia, where, as a student, she frequented pay-what-you-can restaurants and saw their ability to draw wildly different kinds of people. Her co-worker Zhao had been part of a dining cooperative in college at Oberlin.

“There’s a lot going on in the space between nonprofit and for-profit, the public and private sectors,” Zhao said. “I think this generation will change the way we think about philanthropy.”

As Shore Soup became more established, it sought to grow its own vegetables in a community garden. In June, it successfully applied for a space near 63rd Street, according to Parks department spokesman Zachary Feder. The city soon realized, however, that the plot was already spoken for. Shore Soup was then promised a garden on 58th Street, between the Arverne housing projects and a scenic stretch of water. Yet that, too, was a mistake: Since 2011, the land had been held by Culinary Kids. 

The married couple behind Culinary Kids, Marion Moses and Malisa Rivera, are known collectively as “the chefs.” Around 2005, they gave up professional cooking and catering gigs to grow vegetables and raise their five children alongside chickens, tilapia and shellfish. As African-American lovers of the land, they were as estranged from “white hipster food trends” as they were anomalies in their low-income, Latino and African-American neighborhood.

Malisa Rivera and Marion Moses, known to all as "The Chefs," explain plans for their seaside farm and nature preserve. Their non-profit, Culinary Kids, focuses on farming and environmental education for low-income residents of the Rockaways.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

“We were doing this when nobody gave a f--- about the Rockaways, before it was hip,” Moses said. “Me and my wife and kids used to walk out here covered in dirt from the garden. Do you know what types of jokes were said about us?”

The couple took over an empty lot at 31st Street and Seagirt Avenue several years ago, transforming it into a year-round community garden, outdoor kitchen and aquaculture pond, home to tilapia, lobsters and mussels. On the garden’s concrete patio, Moses and Rivera have run after-school and summer programs, cooking workshops and a Saturday farmers market.

In 2011, the Parks department granted Culinary Kids additional land on a large, unused rectangle adjacent to the 59th Street marina. They are developing the space into a farm and small nature preserve to bring agriculture, fishing and kayaking lessons to nearby families “who’ve never been on the water,” Moses said.

These communities on the east side of the Rockaways — mostly poor Latino and black residents — have always been the chefs’ target audience. After Sandy hit, Rivera and Moses cooked them countless hot meals and distributed truckloads of donated water, flashlights, batteries, underwear and toiletries. The hurricane aside, more than 36 percent of the Rockaways’ 115,000 residents qualify for some form of public assistance.

Taurus Harris, who volunteered with Culinary Kids after the storm, lauded their commitment to Far Rockaway, a neighborhood “deprived of a lot of resources that seem to get to most of the city.”

“We’re kind of like a forgotten place,” Harris said.

The isolation of the Rockaways has led many longtime residents to view newcomers with suspicion, especially in the context of high-end real estate projects targeting yuppies and the creative class. This skepticism was tempered for a time by the unifying trauma and labor required immediately after Superstorm Sandy, but weeks and months afterward, the chasms of race, class and geography seemed to have deepened. Who was receiving adequate help? Which areas were being rebuilt? And which organizations were being funded to do the work?

“Competition before Sandy was already kind of stiff for nonprofits getting funding, and (storm relief) was just another opportunity to get the money,” said Helena Wong, executive director of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, a Manhattan group that helped lead Sandy recovery efforts.

“Elected (officials) are working with organizations they know, and there are new organizations popping up around ‘resilience’ and ‘design.’ There’s definitely some disaster capitalism going on. People know there is money out there for Sandy relief work, and the funders are trying to find out how to get the money out the door,” Wong said.

The chasms of race, class and geography seemed to have deepened.

When Culinary Kids was told it would lose some of the 58th Street land, it felt encroached upon by Shore Soup, which the chefs saw as new to the Rockaways and unfamiliar with farming or the area’s low-income residents. In the wake of Sandy, it seemed to Rivera and Moses, land and relief money were going to “hipsters from Brooklyn” who had shallow roots in the Rockaways but close connections to the political establishment. 

For its part, Shore Soup felt unfairly maligned and pushed around, when all it had hoped to do was raise vegetables and continue serving the community. Hillman-Harrigan and her team had worked every day since last October’s storm, with a vision to unite the long-divided neighborhoods of the Rockaway peninsula.

In mid-October, the Parks department acknowledged that mistakes had been made but stated that all groups would now be accommodated. Culinary Kids would keep its land on 58th Street and Shore Soup would occupy another nearby plot — though Feder, the Parks representative, did not know precisely where.

The resolution of this conflict has yet to reconcile Shore Soup and Culinary Kids, whose interactions to date have consisted of rumor. In fact, the organizations endorse a similar view of grassroots activism, frustration with nonprofit fundraising and antipathy for “disaster capitalism.”

The situation might have been different had the groups met and collaborated in Sandy’s immediate wake.

“After the storm,” Hillman-Harrigan recalled, “things were very chaotic — no Internet, very bad phone service; we weren’t getting mail. When the modern means of communication break down, we all revert to word of mouth and check up on each other.”  

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