Monday, January 17, 2011

Volunteering in Brooklyn on MLK Day

As part of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger's 2011 MLK Day Serve-A-Thon, about 25 volunteers gathered at LaunchPad on Monday morning to conduct a comprehensive food survey of Crown Heights. Led by the Brooklyn Food Coalition, which is building a borough-wide database of food outlets at, they gathered information on the availability and quality of food at approximately 180 bodegas, greengrocers, and supermarkets. Teams of volunteers armed with maps and forms walked every major avenue (and checked down every side street) in Community Board 8 on this chilly January day, surveying not only the locations and types of establishments but also the availability of nutritious food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, and whole-grain bread, as well as whether or not these outlets accept EBT (food stamps). This information will be added to the database and map at, where it will serve as an important tool for activists and policy makers working to improve access to nutritious food in Brooklyn, and where it will also be a resource for local residents looking for a healthy meal.

ILFA tagged along in a group of five that surveyed east Crown Heights, from Utica Avenue east to Ralph Avenue. Our team consisted of two members of the Make it Betta Fellas/Ladies Auto and Social Club, a wonderful service-oriented organization whose members were out in force for this event, and two local musicians (check out their bands: Steer and Advaita). Utica is one of the biggest commercial strips in the area, blessed with many more food options than most of the avenues in Crown Heights (particularly those east of Nostrand), and yet, you could count on one hand the number of places offering fresh produce beyond the few moldy apples one finds under the Utz rack at the typical corner store. Hopefully, the efforts of these volunteers will serve those who are working to make fresh, nutritious food available and affordable for all of Brooklyn's residents.

This is the second time I've participated in an MLK Day Service event in Crown Heights. Last year's Clean-Up Day generated a lot of discussion and no small amount of criticism, and it's with these debates in mind that I add the following. A single day of service cannot "realize Dr. King's dream" and will not solve the myriad challenges facing Crown Heights, poverty, recession, cuts in state funding, and gentrification among them. To quote the man himself, "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

What a day of service can be is a coming-together of hitherto disparate individuals and an inspiration to continued service. Participation in service builds community and reminds us, as King wrote from Birmingham (and as our organizer from Brooklyn Food Coalition read aloud before we started), that "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Thanks to all those who took a step towards a more caring community on Monday.


  1. Enjoyed the post ... thoughtful, as always. I hadn't seen anything from you in awhile that addressed some of the social issues effecting Crown Heights, and I'm glad that you raised them here at this moment in reflecting on MLK's legacy.