In the face of threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic, community partners in the historic neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn are coming together to ensure local families can access essential items. Brownsville has a proud history of resident-led organizing and building community solidarity for initiatives and projects that help combat the effects of anti-black and systemic racism. Over 9,000 children—54 percent of children in Brownsville, including nearly 3,000 children under the age of five—are growing up in households that face institutional barriers to steady jobs, good-quality healthcare, lack of affordable housing, and access to fresh and healthy food. The financial strain and shortages resulting from the pandemic meant food insecurity and a lack of access to essential items for families across Brownsville.
After hearing these needs, United for Brownsville, a collaborative of families and professionals who are improving local early childhood systems led by SCO Family of Services and Community Solutions, is teaming up with public elementary school Riverdale Avenue Community School (RACS) and nonprofit Brighter Bites to provide weekly distributions of fresh produce and essential household items to families across Brownsville. The efforts are aided by a $10,000 grant to secure essential items for families.
“This has been a great help, because I’m a mom of four and I’m not working, so I need the food and the help wherever I can get it,” said Kahandie, mother of four and United for Brownsville Family Co-Op participant.
Each Thursday, families make reservations through the Plentiful app, a system for managing food pantries, to ensure social distancing during pickup. Upon hearing requests from residents who were ill, immunocompromised, and otherwise could not get to the site safely, United for Brownsville and RACS also offer limited deliveries, and hope to find support in order to expand this service.
Along with fresh produce donated by Brighter Bites, hard-to-find household items—like diapers and cleaning supplies—remain a priority at distributions. Finding logistical support and supplies continues to pose challenges due to limited stock or highly marked up prices. The organizations will continue distributions as long as there are needs, resources to meet that need, and staff to help. Currently, staff are actively pursuing new leads on sourcing in-demand items.
“This is a service that my family trusts and considers a pillar in our community,” said Jamar, United for Brownsville Family Advisory Board member. “We and so many others have also received pampers, books, face masks, alcohol wipes, cleaning supplies and so much more. This is truly a one-stop shop for all of our essential needs, and we appreciate the vibrant service and organized normalcy our family receives.”
RACS has a particularly high number of students and families living in shelters and doubled-up households (around 20-25% of the school population), due in part to a large concentration of family shelters in the neighborhood and the ongoing affordable housing crisis in NYC. RACS and United for Brownsville continue to hear that housing instability is one of the most difficult challenges for families living in Brownsville. In only a few short years, United for Brownsville has worked to build a collaborative infrastructure that strengthens community-wide efforts. With the strength of these partnerships, they can quickly key into the needs facing residents, and convene local stakeholders to serve the community together.
Each week, staff from RACS and parents of Brownsville who are part of United for Brownsville’s Family Advisory Board join together to serve the community. With Brownsville parents themselves supporting the distribution, community efforts are guided by a deeper understanding of the needs families face on a daily basis.
“It was such a great surprise to get some facemasks and cleaning supplies, which are not so easy to find in my neighborhood, but are really important to keep my home as safe as possible right now.” said Kersha, UB Family Advisory Board member, RACS parent, and mother of two.
So far, they have ensured 98,560 pounds of fresh produce reach the hands of families who most need it. Now, over 6,000 residents per week across Brownsville can access fresh produce and everyday household items.
“What I’ve appreciated most has been working alongside residents of Brownsville to understand where needs lie and then standing side by side (six feet apart) to hand out these essential goods to people who really need them,” said Kassa Belay, co-director of United for Brownsville and SCO Family of Services. “It’s been a joy to showcase how solutions to Brownsville challenges exist right here in Brownsville.”