The Chef’s Garden: Alexander Rapaport: Feeding the Hungry with Dignity and Respect

Posted on: July 21, 2016

Alexander Rapaport is the Executive Director of Masbia Soup Kitchen in New York City. The goal of Masbia’s four kitchens is to serve hungry people free meals each day with a focus on dignity and respect. Masbia’s mission is to eliminate the bureaucracy and red tape that is often associated with soup kitchens in order to provide an experience for their guests that makes them feel empowered and supported.

Mr. Rapaport’s presentation at our Roots Conference in 2014 delivered a powerful reminder to attendees that America’s hunger crisis is real and also offered ideas for how to make a tangible difference in their own working lives.

Lee Jones was so inspired by the work of Mr. Rapaport and the mission of Masbia that The Chef’s Garden provides fresh vegetables to their soup kitchens in the hope that in some small way, our products will put a smile on the faces of the people Masbia serves. 

Alliances like this and the solidarity between The Chef’s Garden and Masbia is what Roots is all about. 

Please tell us more about the work of Masbia?

Masbia Soup Kitchen Network serves free dinner in the evenings and free grocery packages once a week. We now serve more than 2 million meals a year and that’s about 30,000 pounds of food per week. Masbia happens to be Kosher, but that’s not the only thing that makes us unique. What makes Masbia unique is that we serve people in need in a dignified way, serving a five course meal using volunteers as waiters.

What is the most fulfilling part of your work? The most challenging?

The most challenging part is raising the money to keep the lights on. Masbia is a grass roots soup kitchen operating in a very hand-to-mouth fashion, where the money raised is immediately spent on food and utilities. For the last eleven years, we’ve been playing catch up with the demand. As we increase our fund-raising capacity, demand increases as well.

The Chef’s Garden was very helpful to us by sending high-end vegetables to feed the needy and was also helpful to us with fundraising. When we needed to “wow” our high-end donors during Passover season, Farmer Lee Jones helped accomplish that by sending them farm-to-table micro greens to use for their Seder plate. Since fundraising is so challenging, we became “Masters of Randomness” in our kitchen.

It is very easy to operate a kitchen that has predictable food and ingredients to make up your menu. But when the cash flow is always tight, basics such as oil and salt and other spices may not be there – as well as any type of fancy protein. So we come up with recipes that are more ad hoc than a result of the chef’s ingenuity. It’s a combination of what was donated by the local farmer’s market, what was delivered by the local food rescue organizations, what ingredients are on sale at the local produce market or other donations. These are things that the chef doesn’t know in advance. That said, we make sure to have at least four hot, cooked dishes every day.

The most fulfilling is when a former client is now in a position to be a donor or volunteer. Needless to say, the days we get a FedEx delivery of seven large boxes with a bow-tie sticker from Farmer Lee Jones, are happy ones, too.

How can chefs get involved in the work of hunger advocacy?

First off, chefs need to realize they have more power than the executive directors and development officers of soup kitchens and hunger charities in getting average middle-class Americans to support anti-hunger causes.

Their cache goes a long way. And additionally, chefs, because they are so intimately involved with food, are the best spokespeople for feeding the hungry–they know the value of a good meal and can speak to the hearts of the general public about the meaningfulness of serving hungry people a meal that was made with care and intention. Sometimes fundraisers get caught up in corporate talk and forget the human side of it.

A corporate fundraiser would try to brag about how many meals he can get for $1, while a chef would brag about how he gave a hearty, expensive meal to a needy person. They are both trying to raise charity dollars to the hungry, but their approaches appeal to different sectors of potential donors. In the end, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel of charity and sharing.

Chefs can simply take on a local emergency food agency, take them under their arm, and help them raise money and resources. It doesn’t need to always be the same thing but it is all about resources for those who don’t have just like how Farmer Lee Jones sent food to our soup kitchen multiple times and helped us fundraise by appearing in a video message to potential donors.

This year, the theme of Roots is empowerment. How have you been empowered in your own career and how do you strive to empower others?

I’m the wrong person to ask about empowerment. Despite me thinking of myself as a humble person, people always mistaken me for a very empowered person. I think of myself as a person who cares about generally everything that happens around me. If someone is lying on the street, I don’t pass before calling 911 for help.

If I see a dead tree limb that creates a danger if it would fall on someone, I call 311 for a city parks department to prune it. If I see a dangerous construction site, I call the right authorities to get it rectified. Maybe in this context the words empowerment and caring are interchangeable. I care about many things. Not everything that I care for ends up being a project with a 3 million dollar budget a year, and not everything I cared for and did something about resulted in success. Masbia Soup Kitchen Network is just one of the things I cared for and with the help of 25,000 partners which is our volunteers and donors, one of them is The Chefs Garden, we are able to distribute 2 million meals a year.

You’ve attended Roots before and we’d love to know what you most enjoyed about your past experiences?

Networking is always good, a farm experience is always fun, despite my organization being at the bottom end of the food pecking order, far from the cutting edge of where the high end chefs are focused on. Knowing where the food conversation currently is and being part of it was extremely helpful.

One example of a takeaway is that we were able to do a high end fundraiser that included gifts of high end microgreens from The Chefs Garden, something that we would’ve never been exposed to when all we deal with is how to feed the needy with dignity on a budget.

What do you have planned for Masbia in the future?

I was once quoted in a newspaper saying, “if America has enough wealth to send people to the moon, there’s enough money to have a soup kitchen or an emergency good provider in every zip code.”

Some people might feel proud of a country that sends people to the moon, I would like to feel proud of a country where no one goes to sleep hungry due to the generosity of its citizens. I am currently barely making it keeping our 3 locations opened so there aren’t any plans of expansion in the near future. But there are many zip codes in America and my ambition is only held back due to the lack of charity dollars.

And just for fun, for the record, what is your favorite vegetable?

Tomatoes. I have tasted many of the 50 varieties of The Chefs Garden tomatoes, but I’m a real tomato addict so I can’t be fussy about my tomatoes, and I buy a lot of them for cheap at my local corner grocery. For those who don’t consider tomatoes a vegetable but only a fruit my take two would be parsley, not so much the leaves as the cooked roots, no pun intended. 

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