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Queens Chronicle

Farm to table program evicted

Astoria CSA asked to leave Parks Department building in Sept.

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Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 8:00 pm, Thu Nov 1, 2012.

After being evicted from their community center, dealing with confusing bureaucracy, and hearing from politicians that they’d be allowed to come back, members of Astoria Community Supported Agriculture still find themselves literally left out in the cold.

Astoria CSA connects local residents to food from small area farms. Late on Sept. 19, the group’s leaders found out they had only a week to move out of the ARROW Field House on 35th Street without any official communication from the Parks Department, which runs the building, according to CSA President Stacey Ornstein. She said the Parks Department had previously given the group permission to be there.

“By chance, on a Wednesday, one of our members walked by to ask a question, and the [ARROW] manager told her that essentially you’re going to be out next Thursday,” Ornstein said.

The CSA uses the community center each Thursday afternoon as a distribution point for its members. Delivery trucks from 40 different area and upstate farms drop off everything from locally grown fruits and vegetables to fresh meats, bread, milk and honey. Shareholders — those who buy into a percentage of the farms’ seasonal yields — then pick up the food from 4:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. The program runs from the beginning of June to the end of November.

But when budget cuts forced the Parks Department to outsource ARROW’s after-school program to the Central Queens Y, Ornstein said, Astoria CSA was told to leave, however indirectly.

“We’d received no official communication from the Parks Department, no reason behind [the eviction],” Ornstein said. “We were going to be kicked out, essentially.”

She said her group has coexisted with the now-discontinued ARROW after-school program since 1997, but the Parks Department’s outsourcing of the program and subsequent re-zoning of the building for a maximum of 40 people suddenly made ARROW too small for both programs.

“They’re saying that the space is only certified for 40 people … so we’ve been operating illegally,” Ornstein said. “But if you look at that space, it’s fire-coded for like 100 people … It’s never been a problem in the past.”

As a result, Astoria CSA has been relegated to the building’s courtyard, where the group arranges its vegetables on tables underneath a tent. The children in the after-school program used to have the entire courtyard to play in, Ornstein said, but now half of the area is roped off.

“It’s a shame,” said Benjamin Sandler, co-owner of Queens Kickshaw, a Broadway restaurant that provides beer and coffee shares for CSA members. “Everyone’s scrambling. Obviously, this is something that is awesome for the community. I think it’s sad that it’s a full two weeks later, and they don’t have another spot.”

Sandler has offered his restaurant as a possible temporary location for the CSA, though he noted that he couldn’t accommodate the group permanently because of limited seating for guests.

The Parks Department placed the “temporary” tag on the courtyard tent as well, so Astoria CSA remains in limbo until further notice.

“We will continue to accommodate the Astoria CSA with tables and tents outside the field house for the rest [of] their season, and will meet with the CSA to discuss options for future accommodation,” a Parks spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Ornstein worries about the effects that cold, wet weather and increasingly darker evenings might have on the CSA’s members and food. She said despite a mild October, her volunteers are already complaining about freezing in the cold for four hours.

After hearing about the eviction, Ornstein said, she brought the Parks Department a petition with over 500 signatures; a letter supporting Astoria CSA from City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), whose district includes ARROW; and an old letter in which Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, Parks’ chief of recreation in Queens, approves Astoria CSA’s presence at the community center.

“They essentially told me that they had no idea we were in the space, which is totally false,” Ornstein said. “We’ve been in that space for a number of years, and there’s no way they didn’t know … It feels like a lot of lies.”

Van Bramer did not succeed when he tried to intervene, though it appeared at one point that he would. His media director, Jason Banrey, said on Oct. 9 that Astoria CSA was going to be able to move back into the building. But the Parks Department said the following week that the CSA would remain outside for the rest of the season. “They [Van Bramer’s office] must have misheard something,” Ornstein said. Ornstein hasn’t heard anything from the Parks Department since her initial meetings with officials, she said.

She said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) also made phone calls on the CSA’s behalf, but apparently, they were not enough, either. Vallone said many of his constituents use the program.

“I support it and have provided funding for it in the past,” Vallone said in an emailed statement. “Discussions are ongoing, and I hope that a resolution can be found to provide it with a permanent home inside the ARROW center.”

The Astoria CSA serves up to 1,000 people in the community, Ornstein estimates, as 150 shares get split between families and groups, and extra food is given to ARROW children and the Steinway Food Pantry, where 200 out of 500 families get fed by CSA donations.

It looks like the CSA will have to deal with the cold for another month, but the end of the growing season won’t signal the end of the dispute.

“We’ve got to fight this because this is our community space, and you can’t just kick out a community group from a community space like this,” Ornstein said. “It’s not right.”

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