When the floodwaters began to lap at his hip, Rahmell Ortiz's stubbornness finally buckled. He ran for his life, unsure of where he was going, or what had become of the other 6,350 residents of Brooklyn's Red Hook Houses. Ortiz knew only that the Superstorm Sandy was showing no signs of mercy, and that his friend Horace Jackson, who had been banging at his door, wasn't taking no for an answer.
Eleven days, and a terrifying chest-high wade later, the two men stood in line for a free twice-daily meal dished out by volunteer-manned tables and trucks stationed outside the Calvary Baptist Church of Red Hook. It was, by both men's accounts, the highlight of the day for local residents, many of whom still were living without power, heat or any idea when either might return, due to extensive saltwater damage in the basements of the 33 buildings that make up Brooklyn's largest public housing development.
Like many who stood patiently in line for soup, dumplings and cheese-stuffed pupusas, Ortiz's and Jackson's frustration and gratitude were on display in equal measure. "We need help," said Ortiz. "Elevators aren't working and we don't know who the city got out because people can't pick up their phones."
"It's a shame," agreed Jackson. "No heat, light's been off for 11 days, and you can't feel funny about coming down for free food when your power is out."
The food in question is donated and distributed by an unofficial and ever-changing network of restaurants, off-shift or displaced hospitality workers, members of the Occupy Sandy movement (an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street effort now focused on Sandy relief), freelancers, volunteers at the close-by Red Hook Initiative and concerned New Yorkers looking to help out wherever they can.
"It's all come together through social media and bicycles, and it's run by freelancers," laughed Craig Judelman, 27, a full-time fiddle player and Occupy stalwart who had been riding his own bike over to Red Hook from Crown Heights each day. Along with personal chef Hagar Aviram, 29, who had also biked around looking for somewhere to help, the two had been working with the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy to organize daily meal efforts from within Calvary Church, which had itself been badly flooded. When the waters receded, the help streamed in.
"The supplies are coming from the goodness of people's hearts," said Aviram, "and I need as much support here as I can get."
Like many of the volunteers (identified by makeshift nametags scrawled on scraps of tape) and residents Eatocracy spoke with, she didn't see it coming from official channels. Judelman agreed, "This is grassroots, and Occupy had the structure in place to organize quickly."
Word of changing daily needs goes out on Twitter and Facebook:
Occupy Sandy BK @520ClintonOS: "URGENT food needs: shredded cheese, rice, aluminum trays (we always need trays!). #sandyaid
Red Hook Initiative @rhookinitiative: "ATTN: RHI needs meats/veggies for dinner btwn now & Wed. Sign up. Here's how: tinyurl.com/RHIfood We appreciate your continued support.
For now, the food and supplies show up, and both volunteers and residents are grateful for what they can get. "They're happy while they're here," said Judelman. "Then they have to go home and sit in the dark."
One day, several crates of Greek yogurt were left at the church, and some volunteers worried about lack of refrigeration. Judelman assured them it wouldn't be a problem. "Want to quickly get rid of some yogurt before it goes bad? You know who will happily take it? People who don't have anything else to eat."
"Some people were worried that other people were hoarding, that they were taking too much," he recounted. "These people are dumped on by society year-round. People need to eat. It's OK if they take too much."
But that doesn't mean they are necessarily thrilled about eating just anything on offer. "No more trays of baked ziti, please," pleaded Judelman, and hot soup was a surprisingly difficult sell on a chilly Friday afternoon. Marco Canora and Paul Grieco of Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars had set up a table outside Calvary Church and along with the restaurants' staffers, watched as people lined up for hearty, filling offerings from Solber Pupusas and Rickshaw Dumplings trucks, while they wheedled for customers to come over and sample their wares.
The trucks were part of a joint relief effort between the New York City Food Truck Association and the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, with hefty contributions from Jet Blue and their customers, to bring hot food to people in communities hit hard by Sandy. Red Hook residents (and a few shoppers from a nearby IKEA who were unaware of the trucks' mission) queued up a couple dozen deep, while the Hearth team took feedback.
"I don't like vegetables, I don't like beans and I don't like broth," said one woman. "Bring some chicken noodle next time, and I'll be all over that."
"This is three-star soup!" retorted J Rosser Lomax, 27, who had been volunteering around Brooklyn with the U.S. Bartenders Guild. "You really should give it a try."
Patrons who eventually tried the soup - a nutrient-dense, soul-satisfying black cabbage and white bean ribollita that fetches $13 a bowl at Canora's East Village restaurant - came back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. Canora took the initial marketing issue in stride, and mulled over offerings for the next outing.
Canora and Grieco, along with chefs George Mendes, Andrew Carmellini and Seamus Mullen, despite having lost business and thousands of dollars worth of stored food when their restaurants lost power, held a $300-a-plate dinner two days beforehand to raise funds for their new initiative NYC Food Flood. With the money, and additional ingredients donated by vendors, the chefs plan to set up similar meal stations at other areas in need of relief. Canora said he believed this model works on a couple of levels - both allowing the group to be fleet of foot and free of the red tape of larger organizations and also freeing the chefs to do what they do best: feeding people.
Lomax, who had been going door-to-door feeding homebound residents in Brooklyn public housing projects and making sure their diabetic supplies stayed properly chilled, found it only natural that the hospitality industry stepped up to help.
"We're people people. This is what we do, and we do it with a smile on our face," he said. "And feeding people truly changes things."
Lomax and his fellow members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild communicate via text messages and follow the #occupysandy hashtag on Twitter and coordinate with the Red Hook Initiative to find out what supplies and resources are needed where. "I tell my friends 'Sleep tonight, volunteer tomorrow and brunch when you're dead,'" Lomax quipped. "And donations of coffee would be super welcome."
And while Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Initiative can mobilize a volunteer army in 140 characters, hospitality pros can help with the logistics of plating hundreds of hot meals at a time. Though power has been restored to nearly half of the Red Hook Houses, and the New York City Housing Authority promises heat within the next few days, Judelman remained dubious. He mused over the logistics of serving a seated Thanksgiving dinner to several thousand people and marveled over the Home Depot-purchased turkey fryer the Food Flood team was using to keep the soup piping hot in the crisp November air. He also spoke of Occupy's desire to establish a more permanent kitchen in the area once the immediate need was past. The teams exchanged information and made plans to join forces for their future efforts.
And as for that soup: Erma Ribera, a Red Hook Houses resident who had just had her power and water restored, shyly accepted a cup of the ribollita from a Food Flood Volunteer as she waited in line for pupusas. A smile broke out across her face. She kissed her fingers and blew it toward the team, "This is beautiful soup. God bless you. God bless you."