Feeding the Soul on Sixth Street

DSC_0802M.J. Gonzalez

Leeloo Thatcher may work in the fashion industry most of the week, but on Tuesday evenings, she volunteers at the Sixth Street Community Center’s Organic Soul Café, lending a hand in the kitchen, and joining the café’s weekly dinners.

“I started out as a CSA member, then I came down to volunteer, and then they couldn’t get rid of me,” jokes Ms. Thatcher, who started frequenting the community center on Tuesday afternoons to pick up her weekly share of fresh produce from the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) stalls.

The CSA program at the community center on Sixth Street between Avenues B and C fosters a mutually-beneficial relationship between local farmers and neighborhood residents. Local farmers harvest fresh fruits and vegetables and deliver them to the center—sometimes on that very day.

“Our goal is to provide our members with fresh, primarily organic produce, while at the same time supporting the local economy,” says Howard Brandstein, Executive Director of the Sixth Street Community Center, who co-founded the program fifteen years ago with business manager and chef Annette Averette.

For Ms. Averette, her goal in participating in the CSA stems from a more personal aspect. A survivor of ovarian cancer, Ms. Averette now attributes her good health to the healing power of good food, prompting her decision to open the Organic Soul Café five years ago. Ms. Averette maintains a fresh, mainly organic, and vegan diet—a regimen that, combined with meditation, she says led to her well-being today.

DSC_0800M.J. GonzalezThe Sixth Street Community Center

“A lot of people don’t know what to do with their share of fruits and vegetables,” says Ms. Averette, “so I teach people how to eat and use food as their own medicine.” In the kitchen, Ms. Averette teaches roughly five volunteers — depending on the particular week — how to cook using what you have with plant-based food, and making cooking a meditative experience.

“When you finish eating this food, you feel nourished and energized,” says Beverly Aminata Spencer, an Organic Soul Café volunteer, “I feel better every time I eat here.”

Now the host of Tuesday night dinners at the community center, Ms. Averette makes use of a portion of that week’s food share, planning a set menu and teaching volunteers to cook using what is available — combining recipes with their own creations.

“This is Annette’s baby. It’s been her dream for a long, long time, and she’s been in the center for years,” says Ms. Thatcher.Before becoming a community center, the building at 638 East Sixth Street was a synagogue, abandoned after the blackout. In 1978, Howard Brandstein moved in, originally squatting in the building, and then purchasing it two years later. Mr. Brandstein continued to take over vacant buildings and organizing residents and people in need of housing to do labor throughout the buildings. “I organized homesteaders in the neighborhood for 15 years,” says Mr. Brandstein, “and Annette did a lot of tenant-landlord work to keep tenants from being displaced or evicted. That’s how we met, Annette and I.”

Together, they founded the community center, reaching out to teens in the neighborhood in their Seeds to Supper Program, campaigning against genetic engineering in their SOS Food program, and launching the Community Supported Agriculture program, the largest program of the three.

Though no longer working in homesteading, Mr. Brandstein and Ms. Averette continue to provide a home for members of the community. Pearl Moy, 32, dines at the Organic Soul Café consistently. “There’s a welcoming feeling when I come in here,” says Ms. Moy, “it’s an escape from the city.”

“You know when you come here, the food is cooked with love,” says Ms. Aminata Spencer, “It’s like a family here. It really is.”

Anyone is welcome at the Organic Soul Café for Tuesday dinners at 7 p.m., priced at $13.