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Syracuse Graduates Nourish a Community—with Soup, Sandwich and a Dash of Hope
She had red hair. He had blue hair. Both artists and students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, they created a comic strip together, published in The Daily Orange. It told the story of a fish who loved a frog. The fish kisses the frog, turning him into a prince—drawn holding a dead fish in his hands. It was a creative illustration of love and sacrifice, the giving of self for the good of another. It foretold, perhaps, what Syracuse University alumni Gareth Manwaring ’06 and Patricia Rounds Manwaring ’07 would be doing more than a decade later to care for their community hard hit by COVID-19.
The Manwarings have turned their Brooklyn, New York, Roots Café into a food pantry, a place where those who are in need—and those who want to find ways to help others in need—can receive nourishment for body and soul and—as they describe on their website—“large doses of hope.”
The Manwarings took ownership of the café two years ago in an area of Brooklyn that Patricia describes as “not trendy, not monied, more up-and-coming.” Before deciding to buy the café from friends, they had launched a coffee hour in their church. “We saw how people would linger and talk, how a community could be strengthened through food and coffee,” says Patricia.
She and Gareth recall how both sets of parents (Gareth’s mother and father were faculty at Syracuse University) would often open their homes to students and others. “They would open their doors for people to just walk in and join us, a space to talk about life around the dinner table. We both came from backgrounds where food meant something more than just eating,” says Patricia, who credits her Italian heritage for defining food as a kind of medicine that helps you feel better when you’re feeling down.
So even while Gareth was busy with a successful career in the film industry and Patricia focused her time on home-schooling their three children (ages 9, 7 and 3), they seized the opportunity to bring that same philosophy about food and community to Roots Café. Offering exceptional coffee and creative dishes, Roots services the neighborhood, with a large part of their customer base being teachers in the surrounding schools. “It’s a place where customers become family and people here become the fabric of our lives,” says Patricia.
When the pandemic took hold and schools shut down, the café was confronted by the stark reality of a disappearing customer base. “We had a business that was failing,” says Patricia. “We had staff that were leaving. Our ‘family’ was literally falling apart, and the fabric we had built was fraying.”
And Gareth’s work dried up as the film industry shut down.
“We were concerned for ourselves, but also concerned for our extended family. We looked at the empty tables and made a decision—‘let’s push these tables together and invite the community to stand with us in supporting others, keep the doors open and create a food pantry.’” They accepted donations and supplies to keep the tables stocked through the generosity of others. The pantry items are free—and so are the vegan chili and grilled cheese sandwiches they prepare fresh daily, for the homeless and for others who are hungry.
“Our extended family has grown larger,” says Patricia. “We know our homeless customers by their names. We know their stories.” Many customers will still pay whatever they can whenever they can. Regular food items remain on the menu. “Someone will come in and buy their favorite Forty Weight Coffee and leave behind canned or dried goods for the pantry. The next person will buy coffee and take pasta home for their kids.”
The Manwarings estimate the café-turned-pantry has been able to provide 150 to 200 free meals each week.
And the pantry has brought together those who need help and those who want to help. For those who are too afraid or unable to leave their homes, pantry volunteers bring a bag of food and leave it at the door. “The volunteers who come from the community tell us they feel strengthened by the chance to help someone else,” says Patricia. “These are simple things we can do to empower people, to lift them from the fear. Every day, I feel so grateful. When this first started, I was so anxious. Now my perspective has completely shifted, turning anxiety into actions.”
Patricia and Gareth, and her sister Heather Rounds ’16, another Syracuse University graduate who stepped up to help run the pantry, give credit to countless others for providing the resources necessary to keep the pantry operating. Patricia writes on their GoFundMe page: “You have helped us with bags of fruit, loaves of bread, baby food. You have helped us with baked good and artwork and envelopes of cash. You have helped us with your time and your cars. With canned goods and pasta and toothpaste. You have helped us with notes of encouragement at exactly the right moment. With masks with beautiful red flowers on them. You have helped us with prayers and with pocketbooks, and every day I am thankful. I am thankful that I get to fight this fight alongside you guys.”
With Gareth temporarily out of work, their caregiving roles have reversed. He stays home with the kids; Patricia spends more of her days at the pantry. Still, they have carved out special times to be together as a family—to escape from the city and drive out to the countryside and hike in the mountains. “There’s something so nice about the definitive shape of the mountain,” says this art student turned business owner. “We can see the top, and we can climb up and reach it. When we are fighting the pandemic, it feels like we’re climbing another kind of mountain without a definitive shape. We can’t see the top yet, so we don’t know how to pace ourselves. And we don’t know how long this will last, but we are thankful for this time—a time that has brought us all closer together.”