By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Harvest in the Square, the annual food festival that serves as a fundraiser for Union Square Park, raised $430,000 at this year’s event, topping last year’s fundraising amount of $368,000.
Union Square Partnership executive director Jennifer Falk said that a portion of the money raised always goes to programming in the park, such as free community programs through summer in the square, as well as landscaping of park and plazas and capital work to make repairs.
The Partnership will work with the Parks Department over the winter to develop ideas for what the park needs and work on whatever project is chosen will begin next April. The money raised through last year’s Harvest in the Square was used to build out brand new seating area just south of where the mother and child fountain is on the west side of the park between 15th and 16th Streets. The Partnership said that in the last 23 years, the event has raised a total of $6.7 million.
Falk noted that a significant portion of the money from last year was used to replace equipment in the playgrounds and to replace some of the park lighting with LED energy.
The 23rd Harvest in the Square this year also saw the beginning of a new tradition for the event, with attendees receiving a single wooden fork at the door, with staff instructing tasters to hold onto the utensil from table to table to reduce waste. The push was part of a “zero waste” initiative, for which the Partnership is also hosting a forum later this month to help local businesses reduce their waste and promote recycling.
“Globally the conversation is changing and there’s a greater focus across the board about reducing our impact and finding ways to be sustainable,” Falk said. “Because it’s a small bites event, the dishes don’t use a lot of waste to begin with but we could always do better. The fork was a big part of that. By handing each guest a fork, it raised awareness about what we were trying to do right at the start.”
The Partnership has been working with City Harvest for the last 22 years to collect and donate the unprepared food from the event but this year also partnered with an organization called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, which brings leftover prepared dishes to local shelters. Common Ground Compost worked with the Partnership as well to have waste bins separating compost, landfill and recyclables, and all of the paper products and containers used at the event were compostable.
Participating chefs were asked to contribute to the initiative by incorporating “ugly food” into their dish for the evening to put an emphasis on not discarding food just because it’s unattractive.
Tim Meyers, the chef at Bocce USQ, said that the restaurant took that into account when choosing to highlight a harvest pizza with parsnips, fennel, sweet potato and roasted garlic.
“Root vegetables are a food that don’t often get a lot of love,” Meyers said. “We’re just coming into the season for it so they’re getting good.”
Having just opened over the summer, this was also the first year that Bocce participated in Harvest in the Square, and Meyers noted that the location was especially convenient, with the Pavilion housing the restaurant situated right next to the tent, making it easy for workers to bring pizzas directly from their kitchen.
“We don’t often get to bring this on the road,” Meyers joked.
Returning restaurants like Nur and Blue Water Grill brought popular favorites, like cous cous with Moroccan vegetable stew and a truffled honey ricotta crostini, respectively.
Other restaurants new to Harvest in the Square included Scampi, Kyma and Le coq Rico.
Laut, which has been in the neighborhood for about nine and a half years, has been attending the event for the last eight. Chef and owner Salil Mehta noted that he’s seen a significant change in that time thanks to social media because platforms like Instagram have introduced unique cuisines to patrons who might have previously been wary of unfamiliar foods. Mehta and his wife, Chee sin Yap, who is also a chef at the restaurant, brought a Malaysian fish-based noodle soup for the occasion.
“Five years ago, you wouldn’t have had sardine broth in the middle of Union Square,” Mehta said. “It’s easier now for us to try something new.”