Several girls gather around a large chef’s table, as Alicia Sanchez explains the finer points of making tortillas from scratch. On the menu today: fresh fish tacos. Sanchez, owner of the Sugarplum Bakery in Brooklyn, comes to the Lower East Side four times a week to work with students in the Grand Street Settlement’s after school program. Her cooking classes are popular – and effective. These kids are enthusiastic and engaged. They’re learning to cook nutritious meals, and picking up some valuable life skills along the way.
Next month, the Grand Street Settlement will be sponsoring a culinary event of a different sort. It’s the 10th annual “Taste of the Lower East Side,” which brings together more than 40 of the neighborhood’s top restaurants to support the organization’s services for low-income children and families.
Last week, I stopped by their Pitt Street headquarters to see some of those programs in action and to talk with Margarita Rosa, Grand Street Settlement’s executive director. It hasn’t been an easy year for social service organizations. Cuts in government funding and reduced corporate donations have taken their toll on all of the Lower East Side’s non-profits. But Rosa says Grand Street Settlement, founded in 1916, has experienced adversity in the past, and is well prepared to ride out the tough times now.
The Taste of the Lower East Side was created 10 years ago during another difficult period in New York’s history, the aftermath of 9/11. The neighborhood was beginning to change. Wylie Dufresne had just opened 71 Clinton Fresh Food. Along with two committed volunteers, Rosa came up with a new, high-profile event, drawing on the generosity of the new chefs and restaurant owners who were about to make the LES a culinary destination. That first year, they literally went door to door, lining up participants. The event became so successful, they eventually outgrew the original venue, the Angel Orensanz Center. Rosa says it feels good that “people come from all over to support our work.”
And what about that work? The Grand Street Settlement serves 10,000 people every year on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. There are programs for people of all ages — from toddlers in Early Head Start to school age children to senior citizens. Rosa says there are three kinds of programs that define what the organization is all about. The first is the senior center, which she says has an astounding level of energy. “I joke that if you join our senior center you get younger every year,” she says. Rosa also loves the Early Head Start program. “I really think getting little babies off to the right start is critical to their future development.” And lastly, she named the services designed to get teens ready for college. “For a lot of young people their gateway to college is Grand Street Settlement because they go to schools where there are no guidance counselors.”
Rosa has seen a lot of changes in her 15 years on the Lower East Side. Even though the neighborhood has become gentrified, she knows that a large concentration of low-income residents will continue to live in the public housing projects that surround the Settlement. The Taste of the LES is one way some of the recent newcomers, people with more resources, can give back to their community. “There is a role for them to play in helping to make the neighborhood that they have moved into sustainable and livable for a diverse group of people.”
Many of the early supporters of Taste of the LES still take part, including Wylie Dufresne and Janet Nelson of Alias. They’re being joined this year by some of the new restaurants in the area, such as the Meatball Shop and DBGB. The event will be held April 29th at the Puck Building. For a complete list of participants and information about buying tickets, visit the Grand Street Settlement’s web site.