Mandala Café Provides a Vision for Food and Economic Justice

Daiken Nelson with volunteers. Photo via Mandala Cafe Facebook.

Daiken Nelson, a Zen Buddhist priest, believes there’s plenty of food to go around and that no one should go hungry because of barriers to employment. Five years ago, to manifest his vision for food and economic justice, he started The Mandala Cafe, a non-profit business that’s on a mission to provide dignity and mutuality around access to food and employment. The objectives of the Mandala Kitchens Project are multifaceted, providing culinary training and catering job opportunities for those who can’t afford it or who have barriers to employment, including individuals living in shelters, those who were formerly incarcerated, undocumented immigrants, veterans, those coping with mental health and substance abuse issues, and youth. The culinary training program provides hands-on kitchen education that could lead to long term employment as well as a space to cultivate meditation practice and mindfulness skills. The program also helps participants receive a Department of Health food-handling certificate, which could make their resumes appealing for restaurants looking to hire. 

On top of the culinary training program and catering business, Mandala Kitchens organizes a free meal for the community. Every Wednesday at the All Souls Episcopal Church in Harlem, dozens of people gather to enjoy a nourishing meal and can find offerings that are Kosher, Halal, vegan, and vegetarian. 

What spurred the idea for Mandala Cafe + Mandala Kitchens?
I am a Zen Buddhist priest. I was authorized as a full priest and teacher six years ago. In our lineage, when a person becomes a teacher, they are “kicked out of the nest” and told to go forth to manifest the practice as they wish.

I grew up in the kitchen with two grandmothers plus have worked in food service since high school–everything from washing dishes to managing kitchens. On meditation retreats, there is a person in charge of the kitchen, feeding 50 people three meals a day for one month plus using the kitchen as a place of practice. I have done this dozens of times.

After grad school, I was a social worker and worked with the homeless and those living with mental health & substance use issues. So, when it came time for me to create my ministry, I was able to weave those strands together into a Socially Engaged Buddhist Practice offering of culinary training, meditation and feeding people.

What can participants expect if they pursue the culinary training program?
We offer a broad ranging ten-week culinary training experience designed to introduce basic concepts, techniques, equipment and skill building which will facilitate finding a job. Though open to all, there is a focus on providing support for those with barriers to employment, including people who may be formerly homeless or living in shelters, returning to the community from incarceration, veterans, youth, undocumented immigrants, those with substance use/mental health issues, and those who are unemployed/underemployed. We also help with placing the trainees with local chefs and restaurants.

In what ways Mandala Cafe + Mandala Kitchens aim to achieve food justice?
I am convinced that there are enough resources to go around, especially food. We are part of several food reclamation and diversion programs, which aim to limit food waste. We are providing education and skill training to food insecure college students. We are connected with an app that notifies Columbia students of available food. At our weekly community meal, we provide food for anyone. It is not a soup kitchen, it is open to all.

What does community mean to you?
Community is everyone regardless of all the definitions and ideas which work to separate us. Everyone is part of the community, not just those who have resources, work, material things, status, or a voice. And, I include the natural world and physical structure as well.

What are the future goals for Mandala Cafe + Mandala Kitchens and how can locals support your work?
We have a catering company which employs those people with barriers to employment as mentioned earlier. Individuals and groups can hire us, which provides part-time employment and on-the-job-training, plus provides income to support the programs. People can volunteer each Wednesday to prep and serve our community meal.

The ultimate goal of the Mandala Café project is a community-based café that will be open to everyone. It will be based on a pay-what-you-can model; a low flat rate for the meal, then people pay what they can (more or less) or work a while to contribute. Donations, grants, real estate guidance or volunteer administrative assistance are all appreciated.