It was a recent Friday in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the mason jars were being used for their intended purpose. No one was lighting candles in them at an upstate barn wedding or filling them with beer: Here, at NEBHDCo’s kitchen, eight people worked as members of the Queer Kitchen Brigade to pickle and ferment local donated produce to ship to Puerto Rico, where it will be some of the only non-industrially processed food its recipients will see following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Pao Lebron, who lived on the island until age eleven and has called New York City home for a decade, and who has been serving as the de facto leader of the Brigade, checked in on the various stations readying the vegetables.
“In Puerto Rico, my family is from Quebradillas and some reside in San Juan,” said Lebron, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Most of their family is still there, and everyone has felt the storm’s effects. “My grandmother lost her home and is staying with my aunt, and no one has power, very few have water. I haven’t been in touch with my family on the west side of the island yet.” An aunt who’s a teacher at a school for autistic children still hasn’t been able to go back to work, and there are worries further governmental austerity measures will close the school permanently.
The Brigade, which formed following the storm among a community of queer and trans people of color involved in food activism, has been gathering here at NEBHDCo and at the Brooklyn Kitchen for a total of five shifts like this one over the last month. It’s packed up 400-plus jars thus far, and is planning for a mid-November trip to Philadelphia, where it will fill a dedicated shipping container with more jars, gardening tools, and seeds in advance of a planned 24-month journey to the island with the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund. The Resilience Fund is led by food justice activist Tara Rodriguez Besosa, who wants to create a sustainable and sovereign agricultural movement on Puerto Rico, whose farms were almost totally destroyed by Maria. During this trek, the Brigade will distribute items to approximately 200 sustainable farms and farmers on the island, starting at the end of November.
The food situation on the island, for both individuals and restaurants, has remained in survival mode since Maria, as reported by the Voice; following the publication of that article, one of the chefs interviewed, Paxx Caraballo Moll, has decided to close their bao bun stand, El Baoricua.
“Initially, [the canning] started because we were going to send a lot of fresh food back with Tara, and her flight got canceled five different times,” said Lebron. “We didn’t want to let that food, donated by farmers, go to waste.” The food’s been coming in from as close as Staten Island, New Jersey, and upstate, and as far as Pennsylvania.
And so some of the rebuilding began here at NEBHDCo, with sanitized glass jars, chopped vegetables, and cleaned kale. It’s with their garlic-tattooed arm that Lebron gently spooned pickling liquid over green beans in a tall mason jar, while telling me the story of how these canning days began. The brine was heavy on garlic, coriander, and peppercorn, each jar of bright green studded by the meaty, locally grown cloves. Lebron works with GrowNYC, which has given the Brigade access to the farms which populate the farmers’ markets the organization manages through the city.
Thus far, the jars have been getting to the island via individual Puerto Rican food activists who’ve been setting up community kitchens and leading educational programs around what the food is, who’s been making it, and what efforts are happening in the States. “At one point, they gave us feedback that these have been the most nutritional things in their diet,” Lebron said. “The [Puerto Rican] diaspora has been helping out and sending a lot of things, but they’re sending a lot of canned goods that are processed and have a lot of preservatives — and also create more garbage. One thing we’re trying to be really conscious of is using jars that can be reused for something else.”
In addition to the canning, the Brigade has launched a seed bank for farmers that has been categorized and packaged. “We’ve created an inventory for all the seeds,” Lebron said. “We have a bank of non-GMO seeds and sprouting seeds that can be considered a ‘fast crop’ — nutritionally dense, low maintenance, and easy to save for continuous production.”
For this particular shift, Local Roots NYC dropped off much of the produce, such as eggplants and kale, that the Brigade is working with; the organization is a farm share that brings city-based members weekly, just-harvested produce from local farms. Its founder, Wen-Jay Ying, heard about the Brigade’s mission through a food studies issues Listserv.
“I was looking for ways to bring our produce to help the Puerto Rican farming community, so the second the email from QKB asking for produce fell into my inbox, I announced our Puerto Rico campaign to our community asking them to help us donate to the cause,” Ying said. “QKB is helping to make Puerto Rico independent by strengthening their local food system, which is something that’s been part of my future vision for Local Roots NYC. I’ve visited Puerto Rico many times and love the island and their culture.”
Ethan Frisch, founder and CEO of the Queens-based single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel, heard about QKB through the same Listserv and donated big bags of his peppercorns and other spices to the pickling effort.
“I really appreciate the grassroots aspect of their work, both here — volunteers making food with donated ingredients — and in Puerto Rico, delivering the pickles and other preserves to community groups,” he said. “Burlap & Barrel is all about connecting the ends of the spice supply chains, and I can’t think of any better way to do that than by using spices grown by rural farming communities in Vietnam, Egypt, and Canada to help feed their counterparts in Puerto Rico.”
As the afternoon wore on at NEBHDCo, the work moved from peeling and chopping carrots, beets, and radishes at tables strewn about the room and toward another round of canning, with the flavors of each jar influenced by whatever blend of vinegars and aromatics were on hand. Lebron and another member, Luz Cruz, discussed upcoming plans to head to an agroecology conference in Cuba. “One of the main focuses for the conference is indigenous farming practices, and women- and youth-led farming,” Lebron noted, a model they believe in strongly.
At the heart of the Queer Kitchen Brigade’s mission, beyond its immediate impact on hungry communities in Puerto Rico, is a vision for a better agricultural system on the island supported by food and farming education. “The current Puerto Rican agriculture is very small-scale, very monocrop-y, and completely capitalistic,” said Lebron, “dominated by the colonial power of the U.S.” Following Maria, there’s now a brigade ready to fight back.