The 2016 Livonia Avenue El-Space Challenge is a partnership between ioby and the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) that’s connecting community leaders in Brownsville, Brooklyn with funding and support for their creative, short-term projects that reimagine the space around the elevated train structure (“el-space”) along the neighborhood’s Livonia Avenue.
[ioby Leader Brenda Thompson-Duchene. Photo @Fi2W]
“I grew up in Aruba and we ate from the land,” says Brenda Thompson-Duchene, leader of the Isabahlia Healthy Food Festival project. “If you don’t know where your food is coming from, you got a problem.”
Brenda moved to Brownsville’s neighbor, East New York, in 1986, and got involved with community gardening in the area in 2010. As Executive Director of the Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation, she’s an experienced organizer of greenhouse-to-table cooking demonstrations in schools, shelters, and senior centers. “Everyone is blessed with a gift,” she says. “And I was taught to share my gifts.”
The festival will offer cooking workshops, health screenings, and recipe books. Brenda wants to stress that making healthful meals doesn’t have to be complicated or take a long time, and that people can grow their own food even in a very small space, like a fire escape. “When parents come home from work tired and just need to get something on the table, I understand that they turn to McDonald’s, to KFC,” she says. “But that isn’t good for you! Brownsville has a lot of diabetes, a lot of heart disease… We need to educate people about the danger. This is an awareness festival!”
Patricia Williamson, a Brownsville native who’s also working on the project, shares Brenda’s passion for healthy eating and says that fast food restaurants are too prevalent in their neighborhood. “Decades ago, we had kosher delis, nice Chinese restaurants, mom-and-pops where you could have a nutritious meal,” she says. “Then the fast food places started coming in the mid-70s. They haven’t left yet, but they need to! I want to be able to sit down in Brownsville again, buy fresh-baked bread, and be served hot tea in a mug.”
Brenda says her neighborhood deserves the same good food as NYC’s more affluent communities. “We need to demand it,” she says. “We’re teaching our young people that their body is their temple, that what they eat has consequences; we’re showing them how their food grows from the ground. If they develop a taste for fresh fruit and start asking for it at the bodega, the bodega will start carrying it.”
“I would like to see Brownsville back the way it was,” says Patricia. “By which I mean thriving. Not these dollar stores, not these chicken places. Give people the option to have salad. Every black person doesn’t eat fried chicken!”
The festival will take place in mid-September, after school’s started, but while the weather is still nice. “We will have eaten a lot on summer vacation,” Brenda explains. “Now we can start the school year eating healthy again—until Thanksgiving, when we’ll indulge, because that’s what the holidays are all about. And after that, we go back to healthier eating.” She wants to continue holding events year-round—especially in the winter—to keep people’s momentum going throughout the seasons.
“There’s a great spirit of participation in Brownsville,” she says. “And we will welcome everybody from the community to make this successful—PTAs, churches, seniors, kids… It will take the whole village.”