NurtureBK is a self-organized, emergent, & collective effort to make NYC more resilient & environmentally sustainable during COVID & beyond.
NurtureBK is a self-organized, collaboratively coordinated, and continuously evolving mutual-aid street carnival that forms once a week at the southeast entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. Part compostable kitchen scrap drop-off site, part street food venue, part food donation drive, part spontaneous block party, NurtureBK has given hundreds of New Yorkers a new and eclectic way to connect with their neighbors and make tangible contributions to the health and well-being of their city. Created semi-spontaneously in response to cuts in municipal services in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, this open-ended initiative can serve as a model for emergent action and activism in an era of seemingly unending disturbance.
At the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, New Yorkers enjoyed a variety of options for diverting their kitchen scraps and yard clippings (collectively labelled “organics”) from the municipal landfill waste stream. The NYC Sanitation Department (“DSNY”) offered curbside organics pick-up services in a handful of neighborhoods across the city’s five boroughs. Working in partnership with local non-governmental organizations and cultural institutions, DSNY also provided weekly organics drop-off sites at greenmarkets and subway stations across the city. With elected officials calling for an expansion of organics collection services to every household in the city, New York seemed poised to join San Francisco, Portland, and Boulder in making curbside composting a citywide phenomenon. And then the pandemic hit.
Municipal budget shortfalls caused by widespread losses in tax revenue led to a 90% cut in funding for these composting initiatives (a loss of approximately $22 million). Curbside pick-up was paused until the summer of 2021 (pending an increase in revenue), and most weekly drop-off sites were indefinitely suspended. Millions of New Yorkers suddenly found themselves with no way of diverting an estimated 154 tons of organic matter per day from the city’s landfill waste stream.
In the neighborhoods hugging the southeast corner of the Prospect Park, residents scrambled to find other ways of composting after losing a weekly drop-off point near the entrance to a busy subway station. Local community gardens with volunteer-managed compost bins struggled to meet the new demand and were forced to turn away neighbors lining up at their gates with bags of frozen vegetable peels and coffee grounds. Many gardens closed outright to comply with physical distancing and stay-at-home orders. Through personal connections and social media, diehard compost enthusiasts in the area came together to come up with what they hoped would be a temporary and local solution to a municipal-sized challenge.
NurtureBK started that spring with a handful of volunteers standing at the corner of the park on Sunday mornings with wide-rimmed metal buckets and a hand-drawn sign advertising their new organics drop-off service. A local garden supply store owner offered to use his flatbed truck to cart the group’s spoils to a farm in upstate New York with an industrial-scale windrow composting operation. News of the new do-it-yourself drop-off services spready gradually through the neighborhood. Each week new volunteers came on board. A lead volunteer made a logo and started an Instagram account for the initiative. By midsummer, Sunday mornings at the drop-off had taken on the air of a block party, with a half dozen volunteers enthusiastically sorting and chopping vats of organic waste while dancing to music pumping from a portable speaker.
Nearly a year has gone by since NurtureBK emerged as a temporary solution that grew roots and became a new fixture of life in Central Brooklyn during the pandemic. Given the nature of the challenges we’ve faced in the past year, perhaps it should come as no surprise that NurtureBK has been such a draw for volunteers and patrons alike. People are desperate to feel a sense of efficacy and control in their lives as they struggle to accept the mounting uncertainties created by climate change, economic inequity, racial injustice, authoritarianism, and a global pandemic. These large-scale, systemic, and interrelated challenges can provoke paralyzing feelings of anxiety, depression, and existential dread that are amplified by the social isolation of quarantine and physical distancing. At this moment, simply doing something—anything—to grapple with these outsized challenges is a radical act of defiance and hope, no matter how small the effort or its immediate impact.
Despite the impossibility of replacing public resources with grassroots voluntarism and philanthropy, there have been countless examples of mutual aid societies, neighborhood development associations, faith communities, and ad-hoc committees rising up to do whatever they can right now with whatever resources they have right now. It may be impossible to measure the extent to which these ground-up efforts have eased human suffering or postponed environmental damage in recent months. That doesn’t matter. By simply accepting the limits of their impacts and taking action despite the enormity of the challenge, these initiatives created what Rebeca Solnit has appropriately described as “hope in the dark.”
The growing success of NurtureBK demonstrates that micro-scale, informal, self-organized stewardship initiatives are essential to making a city’s formal sustainability initiatives more resilient to economic crises. They do not replace the need for well-paid employees running adequately funded services through local government agencies and their NGO partners, but they do create more redundancy, flexibility, and opportunities for innovation if they exist as a compliment to the formal system. For nearly a year, NurtureBK volunteers have processed an average of 2,000 pounds of compostable organics each week, diverting tons of food scraps from carbon-intensive waste transport systems and methane-producing landfills. The costs of offering this service have entirely been covered by small-dollar donations from the hundreds of individuals who take advantage of the service each week, and NurtureBK remains an entirely volunteer-run, unincorporated, and no-overhead initiative. With no municipal support and limited knowledge of the city’s pre-existing compost system, the volunteer community that makes NurtureBK possible achieved what more well-established and more robustly funded entities could not.
NurtureBK has gradually become more than just a compost collection service. Soon after the group got started, a local chef started selling homemade sandwiches and baked goods from a folding table set up nearby. Volunteers started running a weekly food donation drive when they noticed unspoiled and edible fruits and vegetables were often mixed in with kitchen scraps and other compostable waste. Now, instead of composting edible food, patrons drop off donations that make their way to a nearby emergency food pantry and refrigerator. Another group of volunteers created a collection point for plastics that are not collected by the city’s curbside recycling program—most prominently, the plastic bubble-wrap used ubiquitously by e-commerce sites like Amazon (the online retailer is estimated to generate anywhere between 116 and 456 million pounds of shipping plastic waste per year, according to a report by Oceana).
We propose continuing to foster and nurture these emergent and increasingly interconnected efforts to make this corner of Brooklyn more resilient and sustainable. We seek small amounts of financial support to keep our efforts grounded and appropriately scaled to the kind of action we’ve seen volunteers eager to initiate and sustain together. On its own, any one of the efforts that make up NurtureBK would not constitute an innovative practice. Taken together, these efforts point the way to a new kind of direct environmental action—a collective urge to holistically grapple with the challenges of urban waste management, food security, and social alienation (and any other initiatives volunteers launch together going forward). Funding will support the cost of purchasing and replacing tools needed to collect and process organics and create seed money for new initiatives that grow out of our current work.
Who will take these actions?
NurtureBK volunteers will take these actions. There are currently 20-30 individuals regularly volunteering with NurtureBK. Although the initiative is mostly self-organized and non-hierarchical, Anneliese Zausner-Mannes serves as a lead coordinator. Additional volunteers are likely to cycle into the project in 2021 as the need for grassroots mutual aid services continues in New York City. At least 10 new volunteers have expressed interest in participating since the start of 2021.
What are the projected costs?
We estimate spending approximately $1,000 in 2021 to cover the costs of tool purchases, transportation, and compost processing materials. We also anticipate setting aside seed money for new initiatives that emerge from our volunteer corps, such as our plastic recycling and food pantry donation collection initiatives. The greatest cost to making NurtureBK happen is volunteer time. If all NurtureBK volunteers were paid $15 per hour for their efforts each week, it would cost the initiative at least $52,000 per year.
NurtureBK is poised to continue its core weekly activities through 2021. If the municipal budget is able to restore funding to pre-COVID19 levels for curbside and drop-off compost collection by the end of the year, NurtureBK will determine whether new areas of mutual aid work are needed and adapt accordingly.
About the author(s)
Anneliese Zausner-Mannes is a lead coordinator for NurtureBK. She began her professional career in 2006 as a Teach For America Corps Member in Philadelphia, following which she was recruited by KIPP and worked at their flagship school in North Philadelphia. She then worked privately with child actors in film, television, and Broadway, before transitioning back to an inner-city school in her beloved birthplace: New York City. During this time, she also consulted for the Ross Institute. Anneliese accepted a position abroad and moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where she taught 8th grade Math and Science in addition to serving as 8th Grade Team Lead, and Science Department Chair. She then transitioned to Berlin, Germany where she worked, again as a Math teacher, before being recruited by the United Nations International School in Manhattan. Anneliese holds an Undergraduate Diploma from Temple University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She completed the COETAIL (Certificate of Education Technology and Instructional Learning) program in 2015. In 2017 she attended Project Zero at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. She is a Pennsylvania State certified teacher both in Elementary Education K-6 and, for her specialty, Middle School Mathematics 7-9.