Bed-Stuy urban farm fills gap in fresh foods

Campaign Against Hunger

November 27, 2017 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
An honoree, Bed-Vyne founder and CEO Rotimi Akinnouye exults while raising additional funds for Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger. Eagle photos by Andy Katz

What better way to express faith in nature’s ultimate benevolence than scheduling an outdoor fundraiser in late November? After weeks of unseasonably chill temps and enough rain to dampen the Pacific Northwest, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving presented almost 20 degrees warmer and hardly a cloud in the sky. It’s just what Dr. Melony Samuels, founder and CEO of Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger (BSCAH), needed for her annual Harvest Heroes fundraiser.

This year’s Heroes included Cindy Greenberg, executive director of Repair the World, a national organization that enables American Jews, in the spirit of Tikkun Olam, to volunteer in communities where their efforts can have the greatest impact. Repair the World NYC has been involved with BSCAH for the past four years. “What Melony was doing went right to the heart of Repair’s mission,” Greenberg said. “Supporting [BSCAH] was an easy choice.”

The night’s other honoree, Rotimi Akinnuoye, is a partner and co-founder of Bed-Vyne Wine & Spirits, and also sits on the board of the Bed-Stuy YMCA. Bed-Vyne’s support of BSCAH is of a more recent vintage than Repair the World’s — going back only a year or so — but when Akinnuoye sought a way to give back to the community that had enabled his success, he found no better paragon than Samuels’ Campaign.

Started almost two decades ago in a much rougher-around-the-edges Bedford-Stuyvesant, BSCAH has undergone numerous changes, especially in how it serves its clientele.

“It’s been quite the learning curve,” Samuels recounted. “When I noticed people taking food items out of their bags and putting them back, I asked, ‘Why?’ They told me, ‘I have diabetes,’ or, ‘I have high blood pressure, and I can’t eat that.’ That brought us to the idea of allowing people to shop, just as they would at any grocery store.”

Not only are BSCAH clients able to make food choices in keeping with prescribed diets, their ability to self-select affords them a dignity not always seen in food bank charities.

Although the night’s fundraiser took place at Bed-Stuy’s Saratoga Farm on Fulton Street, the organization has a much larger farm in the Rockaways, where between them, much of the food they distribute is produced. BSCAH also receives donations from businesses such as Fresh Direct and C&F Foods. Most of the farm work is performed by at-risk teens from the neighborhoods the campaign serves. Produce grown there is also sold at BSCAH’s farmers market, which operates from June to November.

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Clients undergo intake and evaluation in an office across the street from Saratoga Farm. Counselors assign them points based on their needs, i.e. family size, income; foods are grouped into fruits and vegetables, grains and proteins; and clients then select three-day’s worth of supplies in the respective categories from the array at BSCAH’s pantry, right next door.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available to all clients at all times regardless of how many points they have been assigned.

“I just signed on again,” said client Bonnie Paley as she joined her bags together. Paley lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and helps raise her grandchildren. She’s surprised to see the press on hand. “I think Bed-Stuy gets ignored a lot,” she said.

Back inside Saratoga Farm’s Hoophouse — a kind of greenhouse that uses plastic sheeting rather than glass and helps to extend the growing season — Akinnuoye discovered his inner fundraiser. After accepting an inscribed plaque from BSCAH board member and Master of Ceremonies Richard Roberts, Akinnuoye declared: “One-thousand dollars for Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger! Who will match it?”

“This is a fundraiser, after all,” Roberts said. “Someone wearing an overcoat!”

“Okay, $500!” Akinnuoye broke in.

“Eyeglasses!” declared Roberts. “Whomever’s wearing eyeglasses ought to be good for $500!”

“I saw a lady with a really nice handbag,” Akinnouye insists. “She’s good for a least $250!”

They bantered and challenged their way down to $100 pledges. Their enthusiasm spread, and before long nearly all the guests pledged something.

In addition to food, BSCAH helps clients manage their money, apply for health insurance, refers them to partner health care providers for health, dental and vision checkups, offers fitness classes and provides cooking classes and recipes.

“When I saw people passing by perfectly beautiful vegetables,” Samuels recalled, “I asked what was wrong. And you know what people said? ‘What the hell is ‘kale’?’”


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