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One For The Ages: A Historic Day In Queensbridge!

Photo By: Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston
Here, 9-year-old dancing phenom Muhammad dances with excitement as he decides what fruits and vegetables he wants to pick up.
Also pictured is Kim Calichio, Connected Chef Co-Founder, Irene Denise, Queensbridge Community Builders Co-Founder, Kim Marston, long time Queensbridge resident and volunteer, Robert Harvey, author, activist and longtime Queensbridge resident, and Frank Brown, member of the Northeast Political Prisoner Coalition and The December 12th Movement.

How A Local Peace Activist And A Local Food Justice Organization Have Partnered To Make History In Queensbridge!

On Thursday, April 25th, the Connected Chef and I launched the first ever urban farm stand in Queensbridge Projects. My hometown. Queensbridge has long been known as a neighborhood rich in artistic prowess and celebrity influence. Queensbridge is also known to be a neighborhood that has historically experienced food apartheid, amongst a plethora of other human injustices. How and why is it that within the great community of Queensbridge there has never been a community empowered food system? Yes, we've had fish markets, restaurants, and we currently have a supermarket, coupled of course with other unhealthy food sources, but there has yet to be a food system invested in the optimal health & wellness of its customers and supporters. Now, all of that is changing.

Kim Calichio stands beside Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston at one of their
outreach events leading up to the launch of the Queensbridge Community Food Hub.

Back in 2020 during the pandemic when I first met Kim Calichio, (Co-Founder, Connected Chef) I had no idea how our relationship would evolve. What I did know, however, especially as I continued learning about Connected Chef and the work they were doing and striving to do was that I wanted to collaborate with them to do some great things around food in my neighborhood. I don't remember the first time we collaborated, but I do remember what it was like. During the pandemic we were giving out cooked vegan food on Wednesdays and Fridays. I also wanted to give folks fresh fruits and vegetables. I had reached out to Kim and asked if we could partner on an event. She obliged. On our first collaboration, we fed nearly 200 folks in my community cooked vegan food and gave them 20-30 pound bags of fresh produce. It was great! The people who received items were extremely grateful.

After that first collaboration, we did the similar thing a few more times. We also did a collaborative dish during our 2nd annual Queensbridge Community Vegan Festival. Simply Eggless, a plant-based egg brand, had donated some product to us. Kim used that product, along with some vegetables that Connected Chef sourced to make an incredible dish to serve folks during the event. It was delicious! After that, I began to envision something bigger and better that we could do together.

Fast forward to last year, 2023. Connected Chef was doing their thing and I was doing my thing. Kim and I would communicate regularly about parenting, life, work, visions for a better food system, and things like that. I'd volunteer at the lot. We'd go get lunch together. We were deepening our bond. I don't remember what was said but at some point we committed to actually building something tangible together. She found a grant from the Assemblyman. She filled out a draft and sent it to me to look at. I added some stuff and sent it back. She then messaged me simply saying, "It's submitted." I forgot about it. We continued to grab lunch and talk about life and work. One day we spoke and she informed me that we had been approved for the grant from Assemblyman Zohran Kwami Mamdani. The grant would allow us to launch a community food hub where we would be able to give away free grocery boxes and cooked vegan food that we'd purchase from local restaurants.

As we built towards the launch of the community food hub, I continued to envision something bigger. I had spoken to Kim before, as well as other friends, about opening a cooperative owned grocery store. That vision was becoming more and more realistic as our community hub moved forward successfully. I knew though, that realistically, before we opened a full blown grocery store, we'd have to start a farm stand. At the Connected Chef lot, they do a farm stand 2 days a week. We spoke about launching one in Queensbridge. We brought the idea to the rest of the team. We spoke about it in meetings. I continued to envision it actually happening.

Then, just as with the community food hub, we got everything together and set a launch date for Thursday, April 25th. I was ecstatic! A dream was coming true. Not only were we opening our weekly urban farm stand, we were also launching an initiative that came to me over a decade ago. 'Juice N' Play' would combine the wellness components of juicing and playing. Very simple, yet I believed it would be really cool and incredibly impactful.

After months of successfully running the community food hub, and weeks of planning for the launch of our urban farm stand, the day was upon us. Queensbridge's first urban farm stand, along with a cool community focused wellness initiative, would open the next day! We had one final team logistics meeting to check in. Kim and I had texted later that night, just sharing our excitement.

Photo By: Beare Flores
Pictured; Lashawn "Suga Ray, Marston, Kim Calichio, Liz Alvarez , and a Volunteer

The whole day was surreal. From the moment I got out of the Uber shortly after 1pm, people were asking about the farm stand. One elder in the neighborhood said,

"Suga Ray, I heard you're going to be selling fruits and vegetables up here today. That's true?" I smiled and replied, "Yes sister. You heard right. We will absolutely be selling fresh fruits and vegetables here today. We're starting at 3pm. Come get some." She added, "Good, because I don't want to purchase my stuff from there anymore. That stuff is never any good."

As Kim, Liz and I were setting up, people kept inquiring about the farm stand. It was an amazing feeling. Everything we felt, intensified once the van carrying all the produce arrived. The dream was in front of me. This was a huge step in the process of building an equitably sustainable food system for my people in Queensbridge and neighboring areas. The day was truly perfect.

Photo By: Beare Flores
Pictured: Longtime Queensbridge resident Vilma Moreno making the very first
purchase at Thursday's Connected Chef Urban Farm Stand launch in Queensbridge.

Our very first customer was Vilma Moreno, a longtime Queensbridge resident. She is my friend Jason's mother. Jason lost his life to violence. I have a special love for Vilma. It meant a lot for me to see her at the farm stand. Before we even got everything set up she walked by and said, "I told myself to stay outside because I had to get some stuff from you." That meant so much. She patiently waited around for a little over an hour. Once we were set up, she picked her items and eagerly paid full price for them. I like to think everything happens as it should, and so it's no coincidence that the very first purchase at Queensbridge's first ever urban farm stand was made by someone who has a deep, resounding love for the neighborhood. This is love in action.

Photo By: Beare Flores
Pictured: Vilma Moreno poses with Suga Ray holding a few items she purchased from the farm stand.

When I called Vilma earlier on Monday to ask about her experience with the produce, I smiled at her reply:

"I Had the pleasure of buying some fresh fruits and vegetables in my own home town of Queensbridge. It felt good to contribute to Suga Ray's dream of providing better food options in Queensbridge. The medley tomatoes were juicy and really good. The plantains, too. I just made those. My strawberries were luscious." - Vilma Moreno, Longtime Queensbridge resident

When I called Kim to see how she was processing the day's events, her reply made me tear up:

"What an inspiring and transformative day! I knew personally and intellectually that Queensbridge was a neighborhood cut off from fresh produce and healthy food. I knew that folks have been wanting a real grocery store for, dare I say, decades. But watching the farm stand come to life and seeing the sheer excitement from folks as they saw the fresh produce, was beyond words. I watched multiple women literally squeal and jump in excitement. It was a beautiful site to see! People deserve quality food and people WANT quality food. I'm honored that Connected Chef gets to be part of the solution in truly building food access from the ground up with food grown from the hands and hearts of BIPOC farmers to Black and Brown communities like Queensbridge who deserve it." - Kim Calichio, Co-Founder, Connected Chef
Photo By: Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston
Pictured: Kim Calichio packs fresh strawberries into the first customer's bag.

Kim is a special woman. She has a special family. Together they created something that has grown in such a way that allowed our visions to mesh and for us to collectively build a people centered and powered food system here in Queens. I'm forever grateful for this relationship and this partnership. The most amazing thing to me is that our connection has real time positive impact on folks lives. That's the magic of partnerships that are in harmony.

She had more to say:

"I personally feel DEEP gratitude for Connected Chef being so welcomed to work within Queensbridge. I know that there has been organization after organization and group after group that does band-aid work in the community only to gain more than what they give. I truly feel honored to have the trust from folks to attempt a truly transformative program. I feel a responsibility to make it work. To build true community power through food. That's the mission."

Yeah, we got something great! This is just the beginning. It's only to grow and become greater and have more impact on folks. As we build it, we can then create a blueprint for other communities to follow as they work towards establishing a community powered food system themselves. This is the vision.

The 'Juice N' Play' kick-off was phenomenal as well. Kim and Liz had spent the day prior making fresh apple juice, celery juice, and a blend of apple, celery, and ginger juice. Liz also did a juicing demonstration, showing folks how they can use their juicer to make fresh juice. It was awesome to witness.

Photos By: Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston
Pictured: Liz Alvarez educating 'Juice 'N Play' folks about the benefits of the various juices.

The 'Juice 'N Play' initiative was created for the dual purpose of both optimal health and community building. I thought that if people gathered around to watch a juicing demo, and had various options to play, they would get to know each other and over time, see each other as family. I wholeheartedly believe we're off to a great start.

Photo By: Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston
Pictured: Tiago and Muhammad, both 9, enjoy a game of checkers.
Also, CCD co-workers enjoy a game of chess.

When I looked over and saw people playing chess and checkers, it warmed my heart. The dream I had over a decade ago had actualized. I was experiencing it in real time. Watching the adults play chess was great. But it wasn't too surprising. They know each other. They work together. I mean, it was still great that they came outside of their office to hang with us and play some chess. But for me, what was most special was Tiago and Muhammad, who are both 9 years old, playing checkers. They don't know each other. They look different. They have different experiences. They had never saw each other before connecting at the game table. Yet, they were engaged and they had fun together. Nothing else mattered in those moments but the game and the person they were playing with. The way youth connect when there's a familiar and safe space created for them. It was a really beautiful thing to witness.

There were so many other magical and powerful things that transpired during the Farm Stand and Juice N' Play launch! My heart is still full, an entire week later.

The Power of Art & Food Activism!

Photo By: Beare Flores
GoobaWorldd dancing with his sons Muhammad and Orlando

If you've been to any of the events I've organized over the last few years, you know I always like to add a little extra when I can. I had met GoobaWorldd with his son Muhammad a few weeks ago in the Queensbridge train station while I was headed to a funeral. They were practicing some dance moves. I took a few pictures and we began talking. We got on the train together. When I saw how freakishly talented they BOTH were, I knew I had to make a nice donation AND get their contact info. I did just that. Later, as the launch of the Fram Stand and Juice N' Play was approaching, I thought it would be really dope to have them perform. I brought it to Kim. She loved the idea. I made an offer to Gooba. He accepted. We locked in and were ready to roll.

I don't think I fully knew what I was prepared for. Gooba and his sons absolutely KILLED it! My goodness. My community was impressed! I was impressed! Kim and Liz were impressed! What was more impressive than their dancing, at least to me, was the fact that Muhammad wanted to talk to the crowd AND he and his brother Orlando wanted to do their own performance without their father.

Photo By: Beare Flores
Muhammad, 9, shares some thoughts with the Queensbridge crowd after his dance performance with his father.
His mother, father, and brother listen up in the background.

I can't express the impact of this family's contribution to our Urban Farm Stand and Juice N' Play launch. Their presence, and their performance, was electric! Truly. My community loved this family. From their dynamic performance, Kim suggested they perform at our Mother's Day Fundraiser that's taking place on Saturday, May 11th, at our lot in Long Island City. I hope we can work that out. That would be epic! These guys are most definitely the real deal!

Photo By: Beare Flores
Gooba cries in his wife's arms as his sons count donations they received after their performance.

The photo above was one of my absolute favorite moments from the day. Immediately after Gooba's performance, I hugged him and he cried in my arms. Man. That was an incredibly humbling feeling. After he and Muhammad did their thing, he watched his sons do their own thing. He then watched his 9yr old son grab the mic and speak about his passion and express his gratitude in front of strangers in a community he's never been in. That was powerful. As both donations and praise poured in, Gooba and his family stepped to the side and Gooba fell into his wife's arms. He cried tears of gratitude. He cried tears of pride. He cried tears of joy. How could he not be emotional in that moment? I'm so grateful that Brother Beare Flores was there to capture the moment.

Another profound moment for me was when brother John Johnson walked up to brother Andy Walker and said, "You're Andy Walker?" Andy affirmed. John then reminded Andy of how they knew each other. John was 16yrs old and a high school basketball star. He was part of the NYC All Stars. They went down to Philadelphia to play the Philly All Stars. John did his thing and was named the game's MVP. Andy was John's coach. They hadn't seen each other in nearly 50 years!

Pictured: Andy Walker, John Johnson, and Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston

Seriously though, how dope is that? Two people who hadn't seen each other in nearly 50 years reconnect at the launch of an Urban Farm Stand and Juice N' Play initiative. Man. This is the power that food activism alone has on the world. It brings people together. If you find a way to fuse some art in with food activism, you're looking at a recipe for major success.

That was the icing on the cake for me. We did something great that has ramifications far beyond our understanding. Something magical happened last Thursday. The dopest thing about it, though? We're continuing the Urban Farm Stand each and every Thursday, rain or shine, 3-5pm, in Queensbridge.

"This is the new wave! Providing fresh fruits and vegetables to your community at a deeply affordable rate. Food activism alone has the power to springboard us into an entirely new paradigm. Never forget, food justice is human justice." - Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston

Join us!

In Solidarity,

Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston

Photo By: Frank Brown
Pictured: Tiago, 9, throwing the football to Suga Ray
Photo By: Beare Flores
Pictured: Frank Brown, Kim Calichio, Irene Denise, Liz Alvarez, Lashawn "Suga Ray" Marston
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