By Alan McCarthy
The community of Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn is enveloped by the bloody, enlightened and historical ghosts that have played a part in the founding and evolution of this city and country. Site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Revolutionary War, home to the first Public Library in the U.S, and the site of one of the first African American farm homesteads, established in 1838 by freed slaves fleeing the south that tilled the land south of Atlantic Ave and founded the Village of Weeksville.
Today, strolling through the neighborhood, one can only imagine through the writings of Whitman what natural beauties once were the landscape of this now very urban and changing concrete jungle. Like any inner city neighborhood where the average income is less than $20,000, the streets and avenues that form the arteries that coast through the body of the community are clogged with cheap, fast, bad food with little or no consideration for diet, health or nutritional value.
And although it may appear on the surface that the community has lost contact with its agricultural, self- sustaining founders, if you scratch that surface just a little you might just come up smelling like roses.
Dr. Melony Samuels, founder and executive director of Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, answered the call for help in the winter of 1998. A young family facing eviction and in need of food and clothing reached out to a neighbor who in turn contacted Dr.Samuels. Not knowing exactly how to help, she emptied her cupboards and packed her car with food and bedding and headed from her New Jersey home to her old neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant to assist as best she could in alleviating this family’s troubles. Having helped out and secured the family food and shelter, more calls for help came in and one family in need grew to two, then to five, and today to 12,000 low-income people a week.
In 2006, Dr.Samuels established the first supermarket style food pantry in Brooklyn. Here, families could browse the well stocked shelves and get fresh vegetables and canned goods without the stigma of standing in line for a handout that is often an accompanying pressure point to those in need.
As successful as this became, she realized that a lot of the fresh foods were left behind while people opted to take the canned goods. Inquiries were met with, “Oh, I can’t cook that or I can’t have that juice I am diabetic,” and Dr. Samuels learned that a “full stomach does not mean a healthy stomach”. So she “went back to the drawing board.”
With the assistance of her daughter and production coordinator, Tamara, they conducted a survey among 6000 residents in Bedford Stuyvesant. Their findings showed 35% of residents live in poverty, about 15% suffer from diabetes, and 27% of adults are obese and 94% of central Brooklyn residents have inadequate produce consumption. Armed with this alarming evidence, Dr.Samuels and the staff of BSCAH worked on a Five Point Approach to comprehensively care for the Central Community of Brooklyn.
In 1996, the World Health Organization defined Food Security as, “When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” and a Healthy Community as:
One that is safe, with affordable housing
and accessible transportation systems,
work for all who want to work, a healthy
and safe environment with a sustainable
ecosystem and offers access to health care
services which focus on prevention and
Utopia comes to mind, or maybe basic human rights. Or, one can look at the Five Point Approach of BSCAH.
Dr.Samuels and staff have developed Health 360. This program focuses on diet and lifestyle related issues. This includes classes on nutrition, cooking, physical fitness and gardening, and farming at a 3,000 sq. ft. garden space harvesting over 2,600 pounds of organic produce which is made available at the pantry. They also provide free health and dental checkups and H.I.V. screenings.
This is to educate youth and seniors together in an eight week course on managing and sustaining food systems through composting waste food from the pantry to use in the soil of the local gardens and farms and cultivating a bee keeping and a chicken coop.
Includes online gardening and nutrition information. Establishing a satellite pantry in the Rockaways and Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy and joining with local schools in those areas to extend their health education classes.
Partnering with other agencies to provide free tax preparation services and a SNAP enrollment program.
Open 5 days a week with extended hours to meet the needs of the working poor.
Representative Shirley Chisolm, born and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant and the first black woman elected to Congress, once frustratingly remarked, “All they know in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grows there.” But, with her as inspiration, the continued work of Dr.Samuels and her staff and the efforts of this community the denotations of the W.H.O. will continue to be realized in this community and have us all coming up smelling like roses.