A $340,000 “Angelmobile” has started cruising the streets of North Brooklyn, handing out free meals in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. The state-of-the-art food truck– funded in part by Norman Brodsky, the entrepreneur who drew ire from community activists when he held out on selling his valuable waterfront property for parkland— is more than just a mobile soup kitchen. Inside, it has an office space where a rotating array of neighborhood organizations can dole out social services.
“It really is an untested model,” said Neil Sheehan, founder of North Brooklyn Angels. “This community is stratified by class and age,” said the lifelong North Brooklyn resident, “And one of the things that we are trying to do is to build a bridge between the two communities by getting people invested in helping those less fortunate in the community.”
With their hip restaurants, luxury hotels and bike-and-barber shops, Williamsburg and Greenpoint might not be the first neighborhoods you’d go to look for hunger and poverty. But while big chunks of North Brooklyn become more and more affluent and expensive, longtime residents, often in public housing, are faced with an increasing cost of living and are pushed under the poverty line.
Guillermo Nunez is a 67-year-old resident of Cooper Park Houses, a public housing development near the Greenpoint-East Williamsburg border where the mobile kitchen serves lunch on Thursdays. He recognizes the changes the neighborhood has undergone. “When I first moved here, 15 years ago, I was paying $200,” he said, “Now we’re going up to $500. The cost of living goes up, so everything goes up.”
On average, Brooklyn’s rent has increased by 30 percent from 1990 to 2014. Greenpoint and Williamsburg have lead the gentrification train with an upsurge of almost 80 percent. At the same time, the Citizens’ Committee for Children reports, these neighborhoods have some of the highest child poverty rates in all of New York, with 64 percent of children living below the poverty line in some parts of Williamsburg, compared to an overall NYC child poverty rate of 30 percent. Citywide, over 400,000 children and 1 million adults live in food insecure households, Hunger-Free America reported in 2016.
“People assume that the only people who are hungry in this neighborhood are homeless people,” Ryan Kuonen, executive director of the North Brooklyn Angels said. “But there are a lot of people that are having to make that choice between paying their rent and putting food on the table.” Kuonen hopes to step up the capacity of the Angelmobile to three meals per day for 200 people, serving “fresh local quality food” and “amazing portions.”
Maria Albarado, 72, isn’t complaining about the quality of the meals. She also lives at the Cooper Park Houses, in East Williamsburg. While taking a bite of the chicken that the volunteers of the food truck just offered her, she said, “A lot of people here do need help. I’m not saying everybody, because there is a lot of people that worked and they earned money, but there is also a lot of people that they can’t work, they’re seniors.”
Elisha Fye, whose family moved into the NYCHA development 64 years ago when he was six months old, is vice president of the resident council and has offered to help the Angels with outreach and logistics during their visits to Cooper Park. As he hands the food over from the volunteers in the truck to his neighbors, he wishes them a pleasant meal, addressing each and every one of the 100 grateful recipients by their names. “There’s a lot of seniors who’s unable to cook, to prepare a hot meal, so this is a well-needed service,” he said, “Not only do we just feed people here in Cooper Park, but everybody in the community is welcome to receive this hot meal, you don’t have to live here.”
In order to help finance the project, the North Brooklyn Neighbors Helping Neighbors Coalition– as the Angels are officially called– is going to produce locally roasted coffee called Angels Brew, Sheehan said. The profits will go to the meals, which soon will be prepared in a yet-to-be-built neighborhood kitchen, so the organization can save on transportation.
Together with the Episcopal Ministries of Long Island, a faith-based charitable foundation, Norman and Elaine Brodsky bear the brunt of the costs of the project. The millionaire couple left their home on the Williamsburg waterfront about two and a half years ago, when their entire estate burned to the ground, including CitiStorage offices and warehouses. Norman Brodsky faced criticism from neighbors for not selling the lot to the city quickly so that it could be used for the long-promised expansion of Bushwick Inlet Park. “I told the residents that we choose our charities,” said the businessman and philanthropist, who ultimately sold the land for $160 million. “We weren’t going to give away $50 or $60 million by giving the city the land at an undervalued rate. So the city finally came to the table and paid what was appropriate.”
Asked whether his charity work was in any way connected to the criticism he had received, Brodsky said, “I don’t take things personally. If you don’t sit in somebody’s shoes you can’t judge them, so I understand their apprehension towards me during this long negotiation period. But I also knew in the end that it would turn out all right. So I don’t know what to tell you, I’m used to criticism.”
Controversies notwithstanding, the mobile soup kitchen promises to be an interesting test case for this new food-and-social-services model. As the truck visits the same places every week, the Angels will inquire about the specific needs of the people while handing out food, so that they can invite organizations to hold free consultations the next week. “Inside there’s two help desks and we’re going to man those to help the people get housing, medical attention, whatever they need,” Brodsky said. “And if this mobile food-and-help vehicle works, we may build more of them. All over there are communities that need this.”
The measure of effectiveness, therefore, won’t just be the amount of food handed out, Sheehan said. “It will be how many people do we get actually involved in doing things that are useful to others.”