‘It’s just food:’ Brooklyn Grange’s Compost Dinner reimagines food waste at new Sunset Park rooftop farm

people sitting down at compost dinner at brooklyn grange
Everything present at the dinner, from the tables to the candles were upcycled from past events by Brooklyn Grange.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

Seventy-two diners sat at one long table on a Sunset Park rooftop last Wednesday, basking in the sunset. The unusual venue, overlooking the New York Harbor, downtown Manhattan, and Lady Liberty, is an urban farm and event space — the newest and largest such space operated by Brooklyn Grange. Every dish of the multiple-course dinner was made with produce and other foods that were originally headed to the compost bin for one reason or another.

“Compost dinner is not necessarily the most attractive,” said Brooklyn native Chef Winston Chiu, who has hosted the event for seven years and for the first time at Sunset Park last week. “But it’s just for understanding that a lot of the stuff from a farm — if it’s not used for a restaurant— typically, it’s going in the compost and these are often beautiful vegetables, maybe irregular, slightly overgrown or maybe they kind of have to be turned over for the next generation of crops.”

dish on table at brooklyn grange compost dinner
A server presents commensals with a Banh Xeo, a crispy, stuffed rice pancake popular in Vietnam, made of rice flour, water, and turmeric powder, made with ingredients that would otherwise have been wasted. Photo by Paul Frangipane

Brooklyn Grange is a green roofing and farming business — one of the largest rooftop farming businesses in the country. Their 5.6 acres of rooftop farms harvest over 100,000 pounds. of produce per year to be sold at farmers markets, through retailers and through an equitable distribution program that sends over 30 percent of the greenery to community members with limited access to wealth at no cost.

Chiu is the co-founder and chef of several food businesses and advocacy initiatives. Ten percent of the profits from the dinner went to support one of his ventures, More Than a Meal, a program that searches solutions for food insecurity by local meal providers with low-income participants. The chef estimates the donation will cover close a hundred free meals.

Chiu partnered with Chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social and Chef Eric Bolyard of La Compagnie, who also work to improve food access in the city, to create the evening’s menu.

“Seven years ago, when we were envisioning an event that would reimagine our food system, the Compost Dinner focused mainly on creating a meal from food headed towards the compost bin,” the event’s organizers explained on their website. “We reused stale bread, repurposed scrapped fish parts, and transformed leftover market veg into a feast. Each year since then, the menu has become an ever more exquisite celebration of ingredients, and the ecosystem of organizations working together has deepened the dinner’s impact and reach, emphasizing our goals for care-focused circular economies.”

people sit around a large table on a rooftop at brooklyn grange's compost dinner
Brooklyn Grange’s 3.5 acre rooftop farm in Sunset Park is open to the public from 10am to 3 pm on Sundays for tours, events and farming programs. Photo by Paul Frangipane

There are nearly 1.5 million New Yorkers currently experiencing food insecurity. According to the nationwide nonprofit Feeding America, over 300,000 of those people live in Kings County. Brooklyn is the borough with the second highest rate in the city, after the Bronx. Many areas lack access to fresh and quality food and over 30,000 people struggling to access or afford food don’t meet the requirements to qualify for food assistance programs.

a row of people sitting on one side of a table clap
The rooftop farm at Sunset Park has a capacity for 150 people. Photo by Paul Frangipane

“The first thing we have to do is stop talking about food waste, it’s just food,” said Anastasia Cole Plakias, co-founder of Brooklyn Grange. “How are we making these determinations between what is good, what is worthy to be on our plates and what’s not? When you start asking yourself that, it really opens up the doors and that’s what we’re trying to do here tonight. We’re trying to open up the doors for all of us and ask everybody at this table to sort of reimagine what food looks like.”

If New Yorkers recycled at their maximum potential, about 68 percent of the compostable waste would be diverted from landfills. Yet the residential recycling rate stands at 18 percent — a shortcoming owed to a public housing system that mixes virtually all its garbage, a stalled program to recover residential compost and a lack of financial incentives to reform behavior. 

“We are tossing billions of pounds of fresh and nutritious food because we lack the distribution networks needed to care for our communities. In order to implement real, sustainable practices we must first acknowledge the fact that there will always be some waste products — whether in the form of water, organic matter, or single-use items,” Plakias said.

Tickets for the event sold for between $175-$200, and a percentage of profits will be donated to help New Yorkers dealing with food insecurity. Photo by Paul Frangipane

New York City collects over 3 million tons of trash and recycling every year from homes, municipal buildings and schools. Over 30 percent of that waste is compostable, while 10 percent could be donated or reused, Plakias said.

“It might be wasted, but it’s certainly not trash,” she said. “Not to mention, it costs us over $300 million to ship waste out of the state to other landfills.”