Plenty of Give and Take

Can a Bushwick resource hub be a model for others?

By Hannah Bottum

STREET SERVICE: The Collective Focus Resource Hub distributes free food twice a week at Broadway and Hart Street in Bushwick. (Courtesy Collective Focus)

The brightly painted Collective Focus Resource Hub stands out even on this bustling, chaotic stretch of Broadway in Bushwick.

Passersby slow down to get a closer look at its many hand-drawn signs and murals declaring “Free Clothes! Donations Welcome! Community Fridge!”

The artist-run Collective Focus, located at the southwest edge of the neighborhood, has become an important stop for New Yorkers who need help and wanted to give back.

In addition to morning fresh-produce giveaways—currently on hold, but typically on  Tuesdays at the hub on Broadway at Hart Street and on Saturdays nearby at 190 Knickerbocker Ave.—people in need can get supplies outside from four community fridges, sets of bookshelves and two clothing racks. Inside, there’s a community closet and a recording studio. As many as 60 people drop in from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays-Saturdays. And the fridges remain available outside of those operating hours.

Collective Focus, which previously sourced food from the city and is seeking new partners for food giveaways, now relies on food-rescue stock from local restaurants and other businesses.

Many people in the neighborhood are struggling. Nearly one in five Bushwick residents is facing food insecurity, according to monthly research from the Food Policy Center at Hunter College, as compared to approximately one in seven New Yorkers. The poverty rate is also higher here. Now that aid from many emergency federal and state pandemic programs has ended, the need for support could be even greater.

Maria Manuela, 72, who has lived in Bushwick for nearly 30 years, drops off a bag of clothes at the closet, then scans each of the fridges before selecting a can of mashed potatoes.

“They are helping a lot. These women are working a lot,” she says in Spanish, speaking of Collective Focus co-founders Briana Calderón Navarro and Sarah Rooney.

VOLUNTEER ACTION: Jean-Paul Torre and Devynn Blayze stock the community fridge dedicated to meat and dairy. The fridges generally offer “food rescue” items from restaurants and donations from passersby. (Collective Focus)

Seeking a model

Calderón Navarro and Rooney, both 27, met during the summer of 2020, when Rooney—who has worked at nonprofits—moved to Bushwick from Washington, D.C. and became involved with community fridges, food giveaways and other mutual-aid network efforts. Calderón Navarro, an artist and organizer, has lived in neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant for the past eight years. Both work full-time on Collective Focus.

“A lot of us were giving out food during the pandemic, as like, a direct response to the material needs that we saw were being unmet, primarily by community members that can’t access things like unemployment or stimulus funding,” Calderón Navarro said.

As they became more involved, Calderón Navarro and Rooney began storing food at a friend’s apartment. With hundreds of bags of potatoes, carrots, and other food packed into the apartment, they realized they needed another option. They also saw potential to expand their offerings, thanks to inspiration from the Free Store Project, which has outposts across the city.

“We have mutual-aid practices, we’re supporting a mutual-aid economy, encouraging neighbors to bring their donations to our community closet, and then cycling through that directly to the community,” Calderón Navarro said.

In addition to having a physical space, Collective Focus—launched in April 2021—stands apart from mutual-aid organizations because it is a registered nonprofit. While Calderón Navarro and Rooney were initially hesitant to pursue a formal status, they felt it was necessary to obtain funding. The bulk of its money now is donated by its volunteers and their networks. Rent is the biggest expense: $2,800 a month for 700 square feet. The hub has sustained itself to date with fundraisers, including a holiday effort last year that drew $20,000 and a birthday and Earth Day event this April that brought in $4,000. They are finding creative ways to make ends meet, too: Rooney says they plan to start an account on Depop, the resale website, to sell clothes and other goods. Collective Focus will also hold a raffle in the coming weeks, with tickets to a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event, courtesy of their network.

Collective Focus also applied for additional city funding through the City Council.

“We hope to be here for a long time. So our biggest goal is to secure that sustainability,” Calderón Navarro said.

They see Collective Focus as a pilot for a model they hope can be replicated in other neighborhoods in need.

STARTING UP: Its founders hope Collective Focus can serve as a pilot for a model that can be replicated in other neighborhoods. (Hannah Bottum)

Take what you need

Cora Gonzalez, who is unemployed, is grateful to have access to Collective Focus. She moved from Sweden to Bushwick last year to live with her fiance.

“It’s the best thing. The ladies in here are just the most sweetest things. When I first came and didn’t have much they helped me,” she said. “I got a huge cart of food, and I’ve contributed clothes.”

Lisa McCoy, visiting her photographer daughter in Bushwick, is involved with a similar project in her small, rural town of Winchester, Kentucky. “I love that it’s free and if you stand back and watch you’d be surprised who takes from it,” she said. “There’s no judgment.”

This setup does have some challenges. The fridges, for instance, are filled primarily with “food rescue” items from restaurants or donations from passersby, so people can’t count on what they may find. Sometimes, that means the shelves may even be empty.

“Nothing,” declares one woman who comes by and looks inside one fridge before walking away.

A core group of 35 volunteers, most of them artists or people working in creative fields, come each week. They staff the weekly food giveaways and make sure the closet and fridges are clean and organized.

Some of the volunteers say they contribute because they know what it’s like to be in need.

“I love that we’re able to help the community, and fight food insecurity,” said Jaime Perez, 42, who is a sous-chef. “I’m in the food business, so it’s always bothered me to waste food. Even the way I was brought up, you know—poor family.”

“Growing up, I was low-income my whole life. And there weren’t a lot of resources or we weren’t aware of any resources that we had within the community in Charlotte,” said Jean-Paul Torre, 25, a software engineer and volunteer, who moved to Bushwick this year. “So I knew that once I was older I would want to give resources to communities that I would have been in.”

SOLID CORE: A group of 35 volunteers staff weekly food giveaways and keep the community fridges organized. (Hannah Bottum)