How The Enroot Collective Turns Food Into Advocacy
In Search of a Greener New York is an ongoing Garden Collage series of explorations about sustainability efforts in New York City and beyond– including the people, places, and ideas that are making Manhattan a healthier, happier place to live. In this column, we spotlight individuals who are making New York a “greener” place in an attempt to discover how, exactly, they are doing it. This week, GC spotlights DeVonn Francis, one-half of The Enroot Collective, a catering business hoping to spur change in the food and farming industry.
If you’re a little confused by what exactly the Enroot Collective does, that’s probably because they do a little bit of everything. First and foremost, the Enroot Collective is a catering business– but one with a socially conscious dimension that guides all of their work. “In the context of New York’s urban space, the agricultural history of upstate New York– and also community garden spaces– how do we fit into that as a company? Who are we advocating for? What’s the best route in terms of providing food and sharing with people?” asks DeVonn Francis, one of The Enroot Collective’s two owners. The other, DeVonn’s business partner, is Angus Buchanan-Smith, who lives in Scotland and is currently working to restore the farm his family has owned and worked for four generations– the goal being to transform the space into a community center for events and workshops. Through the Enroot Collective, the two are engaging with– what DeVonn recognizes as– “the young demographic of people who are coming back to the land, using their hands, the material of plants and soil, in New York, with an emphasis on women, on people of color, on minority groups in general.”
The project began somewhat spontaneously– in one of those typical, chance NYC moments– arising out of the pair’s markedly different but equally deep-rooted family histories with food. The child of two Jamaican immigrants, DeVonn grew up influenced by his father’s restaurant. “He wasn’t a cook and didn’t know anything about running a restaurant, but was sort of like, ‘I want a space where people can come together and commune around music and food and things that I care about based on my culture and my history.'” Angus, meanwhile, grew up on a fourth generation owned, former dairy farm in Scotland. In college, when the two met, DeVonn had began casually preparing meals for friends and family as a way to keep home alive and connect with people; the idea of turning his cooking into a business remained in the abstract. Francis recalls, “I didn’t know what sort of form it would take until I met Angus.”
“Our business is about lifting up those who can’t see past their own vision of the world. I hope our food is doing that.”
After discovering some tents in an old barn during a visit home, Angus reached out to DeVonn about the project that would eventually evolve into the Enroot Collective. The tents would be used to house dinners, a complement to shooting a documentary about different farms and the history of farming in Scotland. “We narrowed it down to four places, and went farm to farm shooting a documentary, and then at the end of our stay at one place…we would call different people that were in the local community to come to our outside, al-fresco style dining experience– which was the Enroot dinner experience,” DeVonn explained, adding that this venture was funded entirely through Kickstarter while DeVonn was finishing his thesis. “It was really a powerful experience because I realized what community could do in terms of galvanizing people. We didn’t know what we were getting into at all.”
Since the documentary, the Enroot Collective has spiraled off into several other projects, including catering dinners at Bergen Street Garden (celebrating “the beauty of POC-driven food and communities“) and for F2L (an NYC-based project working to support queer and trans people of color whose lives are impacted by the prison industrial complex).
Yet the Enroot Collective is mindful not only in the practice of their meals, but in how they source their ingredients, as well– like buying produce from Rise & Root Farm (run by women, half of whom are women of color) or East New York Farms (which addresses food justice through local sustainable agriculture). “The cool thing about dinner, is that you need it, and we all (at least twice a day) go through the act of consuming something. But to know who made that happen– who had to tend to it, and what happened when it came out of the ground– is important,” DeVonn says. “If I source from anyone I try to see who are the women farmers who are doing really cool stuff, who are the black or brown people who are doing really cool stuff…It subverts common conceptions of how food happens in the world.”
Ultimately, the goal for the Enroot Collective is to move towards more engaged, long-lasting encounters. “After dinner, it’s like– What do you do? You’re not really left with anything,” DeVonn continues. In pursuit of creating more deeply-rooted moments, Angus ran a butchery course in Scotland last winter, as DeVonn continues to work on creating a solid network of contacts in New York, with the ultimate goal of turning out more documentary work. “I’m really excited to keep working with marginalized groups and people who don’t often get heard… It’s really important to keep emphasizing that we are here as people,” DeVonn says. “As much as we are a business, our business is about people. Our business is about lifting up those who can’t see past their own vision of the world. I hope our food is doing that.”