As businesses continue to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy, Robyn Hillman-Harrigan is using the aftermath of the disaster to bring her community to a new level entirely: The Rockaway resident set up the Shore Soup Project in the days following the storm, building a makeshift kitchen and food delivery service to feed the neediest of her neighbors while they waited for power to return. That became a permanent delivery service and then a pay-what-you-can food truck–and now Hillman-Harrigan is working on building the neighborhood’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, which she hopes will double as a community center.
The project has evolved, the founder says, from as an immediate reaction to the catastrophic effects of the storm. “Sandy was a major catalyst for the project,” she says. “I saw how much support people really needed, and it wasn’t coming from the outside. I thought it was important to be able to help people in a collaborative way.” She started by delivering meals prepared in her apartment via a tricycle she’d used to sell fruit on the boardwalk over the summer. When she realized she was running out of food too quickly to make the impact she wanted to make–“The food would be gone in 20 minutes,” she recalls–she set up a makeshift kitchen on 59th Street near the public housing development, already a food desert that lost its only bodega in the tragedy.
She soon had a long line for hot food, and her corner became a distribution site for other goods like flashlights and blankets as well as a meeting point for volunteers. But as the days marched on and the power remained off, Hillman-Harrigan began to see the community retreat a bit. “Even in that moment, people have a lot of dignity, and they feel uncomfortable,” she says. Not to mention people with physical disabilities and the elderly, who might have trouble taking several flights of stairs each day to get some food. So the founder returned to a delivery model, allowing people to sign up to receive hot meals, which she and her team would prepare and deliver for free.
“We set up a kitchen in my apartment that ran off a generator because we didn’t have power,” she explains. “A lot of restaurants helped out; they delivered prep tables and cutting boards and basic things we needed. A friend upstate collected a bunch of produce and brought it down to us along with a barrel of gas so we could run the generator since there were no open gas stations in Rockaway. People were doing the deliveries on bicycle, even when it was snowing. We were able to do between 800 and 1,000 on most days, and on Thanksgiving, we did 1,500 meals–so many people were coming and volunteering.”
Hillman-Harrigan didn’t stop after the holidays. She partnered with GrowNYC, which donated produce twice a week until April, and then picked up with the Park Slope Food Co-op when that left off. Come summertime, she was ready to experiment with a new extension to the community she was building–a pay-what-you-can food truck she financed through a Kickstarter campaign, “an extension of providing dignified meals for the community at all levels,” she explains. “Access to healthy food was still a major issue in the area.”
“The truck was amazing,” she says. “We had a really diverse population visiting us on the beach side near 59th Street corner where we’d done original distribution. We had a lot of kids, which was positive. They’d come to truck every day for three meals a day, and they loved it. To see how much they loved it was inspiring. Older people come to the truck, too, and they were excited to have it. It was good to have it pay-as-you-can otherwise they wouldn’t feel comfortable. People don’t want to feel like aid recipients. One woman ordered and said, ‘Oh, I don’t have money today, but I’ll come back another day and pay.’ She didn’t have to feel embarrassed because she didn’t have money–and it created an environment for her to have meals.”
Inspired by her success there–and cognizant that a food truck won’t really work in the cold months–the social entrepreneur is putting together the plans to bring her model to a permanent space, building out the Shore Soup pay-as-you-can restaurant and community center. “There’s a total drop-off of services in the winter,” she explains. “I can think of one restaurant that’s open year-round. There are not a lot of options if you want something healthy. So there’s a really clear need. We’re still recovering. This is an underserved population.”
She also notes that a community center would have made Sandy easier to bear: “It’s important to have hubs like that. If we do have another storm, it’s already there, and you know that’s where you come.” She plans to incubate other food projects, create programming for neighborhood kids, and install communal tables, where she hopes nearby residents will come together over a meal and begin to tackle the big issues facing the neighborhood.
“This is very much an urban area,” she reflects. “It feels like a real place where real people–working people–live. There are a lot of problems like racism, segregation, old ways of doing things, and bureaucracy. But there’s resilience, and there is a community. Even if it’s not made up of best friends or people who see eye-to-eye. People know each other and help each other. There are a lot of communities like that, but there’s a lot of anonymity that doesn’t fit in Rockaway.”
To get started on construction, Hillman-Harrigan needs to raise money. So the Shore Soup project will host a benefit this Wednesday, October 23 at the Bowery Hotel, the proceeds from which will support the build-out of the center. Tickets start at $85 and include food and drink from local chefs, breweries, and wineries; a number of local artists donated work for the silent auction. Find tickets at online; the event runs from 7:30 until 10:30 p.m.