BROWNSVILLE — A cooking school and restaurant featuring healthy, locally grown food is looking to revolutionize the neighborhood’s food culture.
The yet-to-be-named school has leased space inside 69 Belmont Ave. — formerly home to a 99-cent store — and hopes to open by the fall. It's now accepting applications from interested students, and will offer free tuition, organizers said.
The location, originally a gym, is a 5,000-square-foot main floor plus a basement. It includes a 40-seat dining area, a 10-seat cafe area, an a la carte kitchen, a training kitchen and a classroom for courses and cooking demonstrations, organizers said.
“One of the things we’ve been asking for is a nice sit-down restaurant with healthy choices,” said community gardener and organic food activist Brenda Duchene, who is advising the school and also providing some of its locally-sourced produce.
“It’s also a great opportunity for students interested in culinary arts who don’t have the thousands to pay for it.”
Applications are currently open for Brownsville students aged 18 to 24, and those accepted will study a year-long program for no cost based on a curriculum developed by the Culinary Institute of America, according to school officials.
The cooking school is a partnership between the Melting Pot Foundation U.S., a non-profit that supports food entrepreneurship and Brownsville community activists who see a need for more food options in the area.
Lucas Denton, co-founder of the Melting Pot Foundation U.S., said he hopes the school and restaurant will help build enthusiasm around cooking.
“We think that people love cooking and if we can work to try and increase the availability of fresh foods, people cooking themselves are going to be producing much healthier foods than if they buy them at a bodega or at a fast food joint,” he said.
Denton consulted with community leaders across Brownsville, with the support of Duchene, in late 2014 to get views on food and nutrition issues. The community responded with resounding support for the idea of a cooking school and restaurant focused on healthy eating, said Duchene.
“People were asking ‘why can’t we have something in the district that’s healthy and nutritious?’” said Duchene.
“It’s really essential because Brownsville has a lot of fast-food restaurants and everything is greasy. With the cooking school, it’s using locally grown produce where you know where your food is coming from.”
Denton said Brownsville was a good fit because of residents’ strong ambition and enterprising ethos.
“In Brownsville, the spirit of hard work and dedication was primed and ready to go,” said Denton. “It was just waiting for the resources with which to manifest itself.”
Denton said the school has signed a five-year-lease at the site, and hopes to open by July.
Duchene and Denton said the area’s high rate of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems signaled a need for healthier food options. Their concerns echo the city’s most recent Community Health Profile for Brownsville released in October of last year, which ranks the neighborhood sixth in the city for diabetes rates and 11th for obesity rates.
Duchene, who runs four community gardens in Brownsville, said the cooking school will use produce from local community gardens.
Brownsville residents agree on the need for improved access to healthy food. Gerard Miller, 27, said the poor quality of food available is a key obstacle to improving nutrition in the community.
“I live at the bottom of Mother Gaston and Linden Boulevard and within five blocks of my place there are four bodegas, a Crown Fried Chicken, a Dunkin’ Donuts and two Chinese restaurants,” he said.
“In the bodegas, there are rarely any fresh vegetables and if there are any the quality is poor, the lettuce is limp and bruised and the tomatoes have been frozen for who knows how long.”
Miller said the cooking school will build self-esteem among young people and allow the students to act as healthy eating ambassadors.
“I think there’s an opportunity to touch people where it matters most, giving them a skill they can have pride in,” he said.
Nicholas Freudenberg, director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, said that despite their potential, small-scale projects to promote jobs and increase the availability of healthy food have not been done on a scale to assess their impact over time.
“We will need to use many strategies including increasing access to healthy, affordable food, improving the food served in schools and other public institutions, creating community-based and public food markets and reducing the relentless marketing of unhealthy products to children,” he said.
“Our goal should be to make health food choices easy choices.”
The application is available at www.meltingpotfoundation.org.