‘A very strong partnership’: Gowanus Mutual Aid, NYCHA tenant leaders, and pols team up on food giveaways

gowanus mutual aid giveaway
Volunteers from Gowanus Mutual Aid and Gowanus Houses gather for a free fresh produce giveaway — the group hosts similar giveaways at three local NYCHA complexes twice a month.
Photo by Kirstyn Brendlen

On Saturday morning, Oct. 8, members of Gowanus Mutual Aid and tenant leaders at Gowanus Houses were handing out free bushels of carrots, potatoes, and Swiss chard to tenants of the public housing development.

The group has been facilitating community-supported agriculture giveaways at Gowanus Houses and two other public housing developments in the neighborhood — Warren Street Houses and Wyckoff Gardens — for about a year and a half now.

Gowanus Houses is usually the busiest of the three sites, said Diane Fischer, a longtime GMA volunteer, as she checked off the names of returning residents arriving to collect their produce, and the program has grown quite a bit in the last year.

“We have had a ton of people sign up this year, we’re trying to grow and expand the program,” she said. “We want to be able to provide a good selection — we aim to provide some fruit, basics — carrots, potatoes, onions, staples, that kind of thing — and in-season produce.”

gowanus mutual aid giveaway
GMA volunteer Diane Fischer signs people in for one of the group’s twice-monthly free CSA giveaways at Gowanus Houses. The giveaways usually include stapes like carrots and potatoes, with seasonal treats like apples or grapes when they’re available. Photo by Kirstyn Brendlen

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, a few neighbors came together to form Gowanus Mutual Aid, said Ava Cotlowitz, a public school teacher and co-founder of the group. 

The network of neighbors ran errands for each other, pitched in monetarily where needed, and more – whatever was necessary to support each person. Over time, as conditions got less dire, they started to host need-specific giveaways: drives to collect back-to-school supplies or clothing or food.

“After being connected with our neighbors for quite some time doing one-to-one grocery delivery, and really learning about the landscape of produce availability, cost, affordability and freshness in the neighborhood, we learned that there were not a lot of good options,” for high-quality, inexpensive produce, Cotlowitz said. 

She and the other members reached out to leadership at Gowanus Houses and Warren Street to figure out how they could help and how best to form a working relationship.

“When you find yourself in crisis, it’s like, ‘What do we do? How do we organize, how do we make things happen?’” said Tracey Pinkard, the president of the Gowanus Houses tenant association. “I feel like what has grown from this has just been ideal. Ideal in terms of just like, all of the ingredients that would make a very, very strong partnership.”

It’s easy for people from outside the community to say they want to help, Pinkard said, but they don’t always really listen to what NYCHA residents want and need. Even Pinkard — who was elected president in February but has served on the tenant association executive board in different capacities for years — needed to work to tap into those needs, she said.

For example, as most volunteers on Saturday set up camp at two folding tables outside the Gowanus Community Center for the giveaway, some filled bags with fresh produce and brought them to residents who can’t easily leave their apartments — some have oxygen tanks or are bed-bound, and getting up and down the stairs with bags of heavy produce is difficult or downright impossible.

“When we talked about this, early on, it was just like, making sure we are doing our absolute best at reaching people across the board,” Pinkard said. “That means our announcements are going out in several different languages. If we don’t have someone who can translate, thank goodness for phones. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been fun … I want everyone who comes into our presence to see there is an honest effort to try and meet those needs.”

The giveaways are also a social event for Gowanus residents, she said. Shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders were extremely isolating for most New Yorkers — especially those with underlying health issues at greater risk from COVID. Even teenagers, who would usually rather be sleeping in on a Saturday morning, like to pitch in at the giveaways. 

GMA gets its produce from GrowNYC, a nonprofit that also provides the fresh fruit and veggies at many of the city’s greenmarkets and farm stands. The group tries to get some seasonal items as well as meal staples — the early October giveaway included piles of apples and dozens of eggs — which are pricey but popular.

The program is mostly sustained by donations, and GMA games out its orders based on price and quantity — how much of a certain item they can get while still ensuring everyone gets a well-rounded bag of food.

“Eggs are on the higher price side, so the quantity of the potatoes and the onions went down a little bit,” Fischer said.

This year, the group has already distributed over 30,000 pounds of food, and around 300 people receive fresh produce at the giveaways each week. To help boost the program, local councilmember Lincoln Restler and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso secured $50,000 to keep the program running.

Restler has been deeply involved with the program for a long time, Fischer said, and he and his staff regularly help out at the giveaways. The councilmember was part of the mutual aid effort before he was elected to the council last year.

“My hope, or goal, is that we can expand the scale of this free CSA model to meet the needs of all residents in Gowanus and Wyckoff and Warren,” Restler said. “It’s just $11 a bag. So for $22 per month at distributions every other week, we can really make a difference in the quality of food that residents have access to in our community.”

gowanus food giveaway at gowanus houses
A $50,000 cash infusion from councilmember Lincoln Restler and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso will allow the group to cover their baseline costs plus some extras — and Restler says he plans to give some additional funding next year. Photo by Kirstyn Brendlen

The cost of living in New York City has been steadily climbing for years — especially in neighborhoods like Gowanus and Boerum Hill, where “intense gentrification” has driven costs even higher, Restler said. But the median income at NYCHA complexes hasn’t changed — the average family living in public housing in New York City makes about $24,000 — and with inflation pushing food prices up, purchasing food has become harder than ever for some.

“We certainly haven’t done enough to protect affordable shopping and access to essential goods in the neighborhood,” Restler said. “The C-Town Supermarket that residents in Wyckoff and Gowanus depend on was identified as a soft site in the rezoning, and is anticipated for future development — which is deeply disturbing and frightening for this community.”

In addition to finding a good replacement supermarket, Restler wants to expand on programs like the CSA giveaway to ensure people have reliable access to food, he said. His office plans to allocate funding again next year — and he hopes Reynoso’s office will do the same. 

The extra money allows GMA to cover their regular baseline costs, Cotlowitz said, ensuring they can purchase the necessary amount and variety of foods every other week. Anything left over might go to a little something extra — eggs, or grapes, or another in-season treat.

Restler and Fischer both emphasized the intensely physical nature of the job and the need for more volunteers and donors — GMA volunteers pick up shipments of food from Bedford-Stuyvesant each month, load it into a van, and unload it at the giveaway spot. Financially — a relatively small donation from a relatively large number of locals could mean all the difference, Restler said, in alleviating food insecurity.

“There’s a huge difference in providing folks with nourishment, especially in communities that are already in food deserts,” Pinkard said. “People come in and are like ‘Oh my god, I haven’t had this since I was a kid, and I get to have fresh vegetables,’ and people are posting and saying ‘Look at what I was blessed with for today, and I’m going to make this meal,’ and it’s just amazing.”