The People’s Potluck at Taller Boricua Gallery


by Hans Bernier
July 28 2011, for Food Systems Networks NYC

On Thursday, July 14th, I was invited to share an evening of food, friendship, and conversation at The People’s Potluck, a collaborative dinner and discussion group exploring ideas concerning living as conscious citizens in an interconnected global and local society. The event was part of a series of artist-led dinner dialogues held throughout New York City this summer. The series was created by MAPP International Productions, a group of the world’s most innovative performing artists that sees art as the spark for igniting conversation and change in communities worldwide. The evening was moderated by Emily Harney, MAPP Director of Community Engagement and Marketing. The People’s Potluck, as well as all the events in this series, are recorded and will be turned into a documentary that will be on display on September 15th at “WeDaPeoples Cabaret” presented in collaboration with Harlem Stage.

The event was hosted at the Taller Boricua Gallery in Harlem. Upon entering, the guests were greeted by Gallery Director Marcos Dimas and Associate Curator Christine Licata. The dinner was organized by Hatuey Ramos Fermin, an artist whose personal work is deeply embedded in his local community. Attendees came from various parts of New York cultural life while several artists, including  Elizabeth Hamby, Amanda Matles, and Colin McMullan (aka Emcee C.M., Master of None), all work to tackle issues of food disparity in urban communities. The panel included Ramon Murphy, a representative from the Bodega Association of the United States, Madeline Nelson, a representative of Freegan.info, Terry Rodriguez, who started a Community Supported Kitchen in Spanish Harlem, and myself.

Emphasizing the theme of community and common purpose, the evening began in true potluck style, with each invitee bringing a dish of diverse fair, including traditional Latin American entrées, a Haitian specialty called djon-djon, and a Freegan apple pie for dessert.

The goal of The People’s Potluck is to initiate collective thinking about our shared roles and responsibilities in creating humane and democratic systems of food access that reflect the interdependent nature of contemporary society. Hatuey Ramos Fermin helped focus the discussion upon our relationship with food and why people make the decisions they do, highlighting that some people have more choice in the matter than others. Because food is such a necessity, we may not view it as commodity. However, when perceived as an investment, we begin to notice the disparity between high and low quality food across the board: from price, to access, to forms of distribution, to subsidies, etc. Good food can be hard to find if you do not know where to look for it.

Another conversation that was sparked concerned nutrition as a learned concept, one that requires knowledge, access, and resources to make informed decisions about what one puts on their plate. As a first generation Haitian-American child lucky enough to have a family style dinner nearly every night, I still sought out processed fast food, just as others within the group discussed similar experiences with their own children.

Given the panel’s diversity of experience, it was interesting to see how each person was creating change and bringing much-needed information to their communities in their own way.

Most of the artists work with kids in some capacity. Working in collaboration on the EAsT Harlem Exhibit, Hatuey and the students from Elisabeth Hamby’s Museum of the City of New York Neighborhood Explorers after-school program, were able to build a live model of Hatuey’s Grocery Map. Amanda Matles created a curriculum that asked her students to track where their favorite foods come from and how they are created. Focusing on every step in the process, from points of origin for various ingredients to centers of distribution, allowed kids to ask questions about processes they never thought of.

Terry Rodriguez and Madeline Nelson are working to help communities change their thinking around communal eating. Terry offered an informative sound bite stating that the Community Supported Kitchen, or CSK, “brings back the tradition of eating with your neighbors” by using food as a connector. Madeline holds trash tours throughout the city highlighting our ‘throw-it-away culture.’ Ramon Murphy from the Bodega Association discussed how they are working on creating a “green bodega” movement. Ramon, who owns a bodega and is working with his store owners to introduce fresher, healthier alternatives, said: “You’re going to have more vegetables, more organic products. The way the world changed and the community changed, that’s the way we want to do it.”

Overall, it was an extremely informative and inspirational evening. With great food and even better people, these individuals are walking the walk in their respective fields. Though the evening focused on questions of how change can be made, it is clear that this panel will be the ones doing the work to close that food disparity gap.