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Community Dining in New York

Community dinners support a sustainable lifestyle through involvement and local food. Here's how two started in New York City.

By Krissa Smith, Assistant Editor, Urban Farm magazine

Community dinners are taking root due to their focus on organic foods, sustainability, localism and community involvement. New Yorkers Carolyn Gilles and Kara Masi each started their own grass-roots community dinner program in the Big Apple and have watched them grow from a few to a whole community of people. Find out how they did it and how you can start your own supper club in your area.

Green Edge Collaborative NYC

“When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why we used Styrofoam cups if we could use a reusable cup to create less trash,” remembers Carolyn Gilles, founder of Green Edge Collaborative NYC. “I feel like the idea [of a community dinner] was brewing in me for most of my life.”

That idea brewed even more with Gilles’ move to New York.

“I first moved to New York to attend a culinary school — the Chef's Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts,” Gilles explains. “A great deal of what we learned focused on where our food is coming from and how it was processed. That sparked the fire in me. I don’t think people really understand where our food comes from and where it goes when we’re done with it. I wanted to share this with the community. I knew I didn’t know the answers, but there were people who did.”

From there, her idea ran full throttle. In July 2006, Gilles began Green Edge Collaborative as a way to connect people with businesses, organizations and resources in New York with the goal of building a sustainable future.

Gilles started talking to friends about her idea, created a website and started an email list.

“We started with five people on the mailing list,” Gilles says. “Now there’s about 1,600 to 1,700 people on the list.”

The first few community dinners were held in Gilles’ apartment, but after 10 to 15 people started coming, she decided they needed more space.

“We got creative,” Gilles says. “We would use donated space in bookstores, cafes and even a cooperative work center. Nonprofit organizations were very helpful in donating space to us.”

Depending on the weather, anywhere from 15 to 60 people would attend the community dinners. Gilles said they encouraged people to RSVP but many showed up impromptu.

Gilles encouraged everyone to bring one local, seasonal, organic vegetarian food to share with the group. During the first half of the meeting, guests would taste the food, network and mingle.

The second half of the event was geared toward a timely aspect of sustainable living and a question-and-answer session.

“Our topics were related to the environment and sustainability—things like urban farming, trash and recycling, energy, and consumption,” Gilles says. “Then we would invite a professional in the field, such as nonprofit directors, authors and filmmakers who would share their knowledge and research.”

Gilles says one of the biggest advantages of the community dinners was the chance to network, get ideas and share concerns.
“We created a support system for our values and beliefs,” she explains. “I think when we surround ourselves with people who support our values and beliefs, they become stronger.”

Gilles has since returned to her home state of Kentucky, where she is working to develop a Green Edge Kentucky chapter.

But even with her move to The Bluegrass State, Gilles is still very much connected to the people in New York and to Green Edge NYC’s mission.

“The mission is to connect people with business and nonprofits and the resources they need to create a sustainable future,” she says. “As long as their actions live by the mission, I will be very proud.”

The Ted and Amy Supper Club

The creation of The Ted and Amy Supper Club in New York City began with a passion and the help of a few friends.

“I love to cook and host dinner parties for my friends,” says Kara Masi, instigator of the Ted and Amy Supper Club. “But I found that it was getting expensive. My friends said, ‘We’ll chip in,’ and soon I was taking donations for making dinner.”

Since then, Masi has been hosting the supper club in her home one to two times per month. Word about the supper club spread through the website, mailing list and Facebook group, and Masi has watched her dinners grow from a few friends to a whole community.

“Every month, I post and send out menus for the upcoming weeks,” she says. “For any given dinner, I can have a combination of people I know … and strangers! The guests receive an email the evening before the dinner, revealing the location. They then show up, and eat and drink, and make new friends.”

Masi is the primary organizer of the community dinners with about four to five people who take turns helping guest chef, sous chef or host. She asks guests to RSVP online and requests donations of around $35 to cover four to five courses and wine.

“My goal is to create a fun atmosphere where people can get to know each other over a home-cooked meal and lots of wine,” Masi explains. “People have met at supper club and networked for jobs, become new friends and some have even become lovers. It’s a low-key, casual vibe, and we attract a lot of single people and couples ranging in ages from 25 to 45.”

Masi buys most of the food she cooks at local artisanal shops, the neighborhood market, or her personal favorite, Fresh Direct, a local, online grocery delivery service.

Not only does the supper club provide a bit of change for the typical New Yorker, it also facilitates a sustainable lifestyle by promoting whole foods, social connections and a chance to slow down.

“New York City is crazy,” Masi says. “I love it, but it’s crazy. Something like this supper club is such a change of pace. It’s slow, it’s mellow, it’s affordable, it’s personal, and you can see your food being cooked — you know exactly what’s going in there.”

But even more than the food, Masi says the supper club is about the people.

“I find that people are looking for ways to connect with each other,” she says. “So many of us spend our days online in front of computers. When we’re not doing that, people want to make authentic face-to-face connections. I enjoy being able to facilitate that.”

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