The Melting Pot Foundation’s Brownsville Community Culinary Center Training Program pictured in spring 2016.

By Aradhana Verma MA 16, Isabelle Schuhmann MBA 16, Rosalin Luetum MPH 17, My-Thuan Tran MBA/MPH 16

Stories and food have the power to bring people closer today. Stories bring connection between people who seem completely different on the outside. We wanted to use the power of stories to tell the story of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, New York…

In the span of three months and from many miles away, we used design thinking methods to build on the amazing work of the Melting Pot Foundation in Brownsville, which is starting a Community Café and culinary school.

Claus Meyer, a world-renowned restaurateur and co-founder of Noma in Denmark, founded the Melting Pot Foundation to combat poverty through deliciousness. Claus, together with Lucas Denton, developed the idea to bring more food options and delight to the Brownsville Community.

Brownsville is one of the most underserved communities in the country. A third of its residents live in poverty; it has the highest homicide rates in all of NYC; it was designated as a food desert in 2008; and many residents are suffering from diabetes and heart disease.

When we traveled to Brownsville, we had an opportunity to meet many leaders in the community. During a design thinking workshop with these leaders, another story of Brownsville surfaced. Brownsville has resilience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity—the people living in Brownsville have figured out ways to take limited resources and create something special.

These two narratives—the good and the bad–co-exist in Brownsville.

We kept hearing that residents saw a lack of connectedness in their community. From that, we saw a barrier that keeps the community from harnessing its full potential.

We asked ourselves: “How might we use deliciousness to increase connectedness in the Brownsville community?”

Photo Credit: Skovdal.dk/ Stine Christiansen
Photo Credit: Skovdal.dk/ Stine Christiansen

We thought stories would be a key to bringing connectedness to Brownsville. One of the stories we heard was from Barbara, who describes her family as a melting pot of cultures: her father is from Trinidad and her mother is Cherokee.

Barbara grew up cooking delicious recipes she learned from her mother and grandmother. However, just a few years ago, she weighed 200 pounds and went into a diabetic coma. This was a wake up call for Barbara. Since then, she has been reinventing her traditional family recipes with healthier ingredients.

We wanted to reflect Barbara’s voice, and others like hers, in the Melting Pot café. From this, we developed our idea for a rotating dish inspired by Brownsville residents. A dish that was meaningful to Barbara’s family is crab cake pie, which her grandmother used to make from her uncle’s crab catch when they lived in the South. We developed an idea to transform the ingredients into a dish that would align with the existing menu of the Melting Pot Cafe and a way to share Barbara’s story in the menu.

Image Courtesy of Eat.Think.Design. team
Image Courtesy of Eat.Think.Design. team

To expand the reach of these personal stories, we came up with the idea for a “story salon” where community members could share their personal memories and make meaningful connections.

We had the wonderful opportunity to pilot a storytelling salon during our second visit to Brownsville at Brenda Duchene’s community garden, where we all shared an amazing meal prepared by Mette and her future student chefs. We loved listening to personal stories of local residents around community, food and life in Brownsville. You will find some pictures of the pop-up event below.

Together, these ideas are the backbone for our concept for Food.Place.Community.Stories. In close cooperation with Lucas and Mette Strarup, the Melting Pot Café’s executive chef, we created templates and piloted the reflection of community member’s personal stories in both the menu development as well as in the form of storytelling salons at the Community Café.

Photo Credit: Skovdal.dk/ Stine Christiansen
Photo Credit: Skovdal.dk/ Stine Christiansen

What has been crucial about our experience and success with this project was the opportunity to spend time in Brownsville. It gave us an opportunity to peel back the layers in this unique community and learn from the experiences of people living in Brownsville. As soon as the Café and Culinary School is up and running, the stories of the Brownsville community will play a crucial role to enhance the connectedness among its people. We are looking forward to visiting the MPF Café and Culinary School soon and seeing the stories come to life.

“When sharing delicious foods and personal stories, community members develop connections that mirror the bonds forged around family meals—there is no greater foundation for solidarity, for renewal.”

Lucas Denton, Executive Director of MPF USA

In Spring 2016, Aradhana Verma (Master’s of Translational Medicine, ’16), Isabelle Schuhmann (MBA ’16), Rosalin Luetum (Master’s of Public Health Nutrition, ’17), and My-Thuan Tran (MBA/MPH ’16) were students in Eat.Think.Design., a hands-on, interdisciplinary design course at the School of Public Health that explores the intersections of food, health, innovation, and impact. The team was part of a new partnership between the Center for Responsible Business at Haas, Claus Meyer’s Melting Pot Foundation, and Eat.Think.Design.