Free Produce, Coffee and a Sense of Community for NYU Students

The Minetta Creek Collective is tackling food insecurity for the Washington Square Park community.

The inaugural Minetta Creek Collective farmstand outside of Washington Square Park (Photo courtesy of Minetta Creek Collective)

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On October 6th, the Minetta Creek Collective set up shop outside of Washington Square Park on the edge of New York University’s campus. Three long tables were packed with fresh produce, coffee, tea and pantry goods — free for anyone who needed it. In the course of four hours, the collective distributed more than 2,000 pounds of food.

It was the collective’s first effort to operate a free, weekly farmstand to help combat food insecurity on the NYU campus, as well as the broader Washington Square Park community. The farmstand builds off earlier work of university administrators who initiated food distribution prior to the pandemic and changed gears after the school went remote.

“There’s a bounty that exists in this space — a plethora of resources like dining halls, unbelievable facilities and events,” says David Sugarman, a member of the collective. “We’re thinking about how to democratize those things and make them accessible outside the immediate NYU community.”

The beginnings of Minetta Creek Collective date to 2019, when the New York Times reported on the widespread food insecurity of college students across the country and the Washington Square News, the student paper for New York University, published an op-ed arguing the university should do more to address the issue, with over one-fifth of NYU students facing financial hardship to afford food.

“It was something that came to our attention as an immediate need and we started talking about ways to address it within our reach and resources,” says Chelsea Rhodes, a graduate history program administrator. She and fellow administrator Maura Puscheck came up with a straightforward solution: setting up a food pantry table inside the Department of History where both graduate and undergraduate students had access. The table was set up every day between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the fall of 2019, with faculty and staff donating the food.

Beyond free food distribution, “part of that effort was to learn about other resources at NYU and who else is working on this at NYU,” Rhodes says. Puscheck developed a website under the history department compiling resources for food-insecure students.

During the pandemic, with the campus and food pantry shut down, Puscheck and Rhodes connected with David Sugarman, an associate faculty and class adviser, who was brainstorming ways to address food insecurity with his own students. “Chelsea and Maura’s work was among the only very visible resources for students facing food insecurity,” he says. The three began collaborating early this year to re-envision the food pantry and expand it to serve a wider population around Washington Square Park, NYU’s de-facto campus.

“While it’s very much a problem amongst our students, we’re this huge institution in the middle of the city and Washington Square Park is the heart of that,” Rhodes says. “Knowing so many people in the park could benefit from this resource — it made sense to expand.”

The collective first looked into a mobile food pantry inside the park but ran into complications with city officials and community groups. “There were a dozen different ideas, which included dozens of conversations with the Parks Department, community organizations, the Department of Transportation, mutual aid organizations,” Sugarman says. “We realized we weren’t going to get a lot of community support from neighborhood organizations or the Parks Department.”

Momentum came from conversations with Judson Memorial Church, located off the park’s southern end. The church offered to supply food through their Judson Food Bank and the conversations evolved. “They basically invited us to host what we’re doing on their property,” Rhodes says.

Minetta Creek Collective volunteers set up their farmstand (Photo courtesy of Minetta Creek Collective)

With the location set, Minetta Creek Collective wanted an easily accessible, comfortable space that made it easy to pick up food. “We were thinking about people who wouldn’t feel as comfortable going to a food pantry, but really need to make use of these resources,” Sugarman says, “and how we could create a space that could be inclusive.”

They decided on a weekly farmstand model in front of Judson Memorial Church operated with help from student volunteers. “There’s just food out — people don’t need to sign their names or stand in line, they can just grab a bag and go or they can stand around and chat,” Sugarman says. In the first week, the collective served everyone from NYU students to teenagers and elderly residents who live nearby.

Moving forward, Minetta Creek Collective will source food not just from Judson Memorial Church, but also local businesses and other local places of worship. “One big part of what we’d like to do next is build out the farmstand with more food options we’re rescuing from the neighborhood,” Sugarman says.

The collective hopes this public resource will help better link the issues of food insecurity within NYU to the needs of the broader community.

“The pandemic transformed how New Yorkers think about food insecurity,” Sugerman says. “This is a resource for everyone,” Rhodes adds. “We’re hoping to be listening to what the needs are, addressing them in the ways we can, and offering something for everybody.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: new york cityfood securityhigher educationfood justice

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