It’s 1:30 pm, and people sit scattered at tables around the Community Cafe at Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen and community organization in Ocean Hill. A man walks through the door and greets another dressed in a blue sweatshirt, hunched over a steaming plate of pasta with meat sauce.
“What are you doing here?” the man in the sweatshirt says between bites. “I usually see you at the other restaurant.”
It’s the rare soup kitchen that looks like a restaurant, but Neighbors Together works to be more than a place for people in hard times to fill their bellies. Neighbors Together was founded in 1982 by a group of nuns and local residents who saw a need. Hunger and poverty were rampant in the surrounding communities of Ocean Hill, Brownsville and Bedford Stuyvesant. Residents here faced myriad struggles from housing instability to unemployment to substance abuse and mental health issues.
“Our founders believed that Neighbors Together would be a temporary solution to a temporary problem,” says Denny Marsh, Executive Director. “Unfortunately 30 years later, as we’ve seen, this is not a temporary problem. We would love to put ourselves out of business one day, but until we’re no longer needed, we’re here.”
Through providing meals, comprehensive services, and community organizing, the organization works hard to get at the root of poverty, which has only worsened in the economic downturn. But funding has become scarce. The $20,000 grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation this year for general operations has allowed the staffers
here continue their work without cutting any services.
Neighbors Together serves free nutritious meals to 400 people each day. Many are single men, though over the past several months more women and children have walked through the door for lunch and dinner.
All are invited to congregate in their café, which offers a welcoming community space in a neighborhood where very few social services exist.
Assistance goes beyond what fits on a plate. Neighbors Together offers personalized social services to members, from applying for Food Stamps to securing referrals for employment, housing, and mental health services.
They are also developing programs to increase members’ sense of ownership of the advocacy efforts happening at Neighbors Together, and the policies that deeply influence their lives.
“Food is the first step; social services are another way to respond. But if that’s all we’re doing, we’re merely putting a Band-Aid on the current system,” says Marsh. “We believe that to really solve hunger and poverty, low-income people have to have a strong voice in the