Food justice is important to Gomes. As a Black mother living in central Brooklyn, she relates to the frustration that comes with having to travel to find healthy options—a frustration amplified by her upbringing in Trinidad, where she was surrounded by bountiful and accessible produce.
“Brownsville is a community that has done a lot with a little,” she says. “We’re here to support and bring resources.”
One of those resources is money. The ability to dole it out affects who can afford to participate in the culinary program.
Edgar Phillips, a 26-year-old father of three, was making a good salary at Delta Airlines—but his heart wasn’t in the work. He wanted to go to culinary school, but the cost of doing so was prohibitive.
While his wife encouraged him to apply for BCCC training, Phillips was hesitant: the Flushing Queens resident had only heard negative things about the Brownsville neighborhood. His perspective changed, however, when he attended an introductory session and heard about the stipend: a key part of BCCC’s offering. It was this that convinced him to give the program a shot. “I’ve got a family,” he explains. “I need to make money.”
For parents like Phillips, expensive programs or unpaid apprenticeships just aren’t feasible. BCCC directly addresses this with its paid training program and guaranteed job placement. Phillips, for instance, found work at the Mexican restaurant Cosme just two weeks after finishing his culinary training, where he continued working as a prep cook until the coronavirus pandemic forced the restaurant to close.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez—one of Phillips’ classmates—landed himself a prep cook position at one of Claus Meyer’s restaurants and later leveraged his previous management experience into creating a culinary program for children at a Staten Island day camp. Sadly, however, the pandemic has upended much of that progress and exacerbated pre-existing issues. “[It made it] very hard to get anything, in a place where it was already hard to get things,” he explains. “Fresh produce and everything, it is not easy to come by around here... people were hungry.”
In that sense, BCCC has had to get creative over the past year in order to meet the changing needs of the community. Gutierrez was in between jobs when COVID-19 hit, so BCCC called him back to help with a food distribution program started by their partner Collective Fare, which was founded by a BCCC instructor. At the height of the pandemic, Gutierrez says demand was unprecedented. “When we’d have distribution on-site we’d have long, long lines—like 200 people,” he remembers. “It was crazy.” While the queues have since shortened, he still runs the café, creating the menu and the meals.
Phillips also found work with BCCC after Cosme was forced to shut its doors. Without BCCC’s training, he says his entire trajectory would have been different. “I would have still been working for the airport. They got rid of a lot of people—not a lot of people were flying last year because of the whole pandemic. So I would have been out of a job and I wouldn’t know what to do.
I feel like BCCC really helped me a lot.”
Given the manner in which the events of the past year have gutted the restaurant industry, BCCC is now pivoting to different types of culinary education. “[Our focus] is not to gear young people towards restaurant jobs, because they’re fleeting at this point,” says Gomes. “We’re thinking more expansively about what culinary education can do in the intersection of various other jobs: healthcare, mass food production, culinary arts within the community, community chefing, cooking for diet-related illnesses.”
BCCC is also focusing on fixing long-standing health disparities. While COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the Brownsville neighborhood, Denton believes it pales in comparison to what systemic racism has done to it. “You just got to look at the statistics, the level of people dying from diet-related illness in Brownsville vastly eclipses what you know coronavirus has done.”