Breaking Bread and Boundaries in Central Harlem

A line of several dozen people form beneath the All Souls Episcopal Church each Wednesday evening in Central Harlem. Though the group varies in ethnicity, age, gender and stature, their faces wear the same fragile expression. Many of them have been homeless for years, some have been formerly incarcerated, and most of them struggle to make ends meet.

However, they know wherever their circumstances have taken them that day, they are can come here to enjoy a nutritious meal prepared by a man who has not given up on them, Daiken Nelson.  They’ve come to the Mandala Café, a weekly non-profit kitchen that he runs to serve food to those who need it prepared from donated ingredients. 

In 2014, Nelson, 54, decided to funnel his passions into the Mandala Cafe.  He says it has allowed him to weave the many threads of his life together—his love of food and his desire to help people who need it. Nelson has studied Zen Buddhism for the past 30 years in Iowa, California and New York. Prior to his religious practices, he managed restaurants and was a social worker for populations facing chronic mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

Nelson struggles to make ends meet himself.

“I pay myself about $500 a month and take side jobs,” he said. “It’s a labor of love and I really want to see this opportunity for folks grow.”

Nelson also partners with local nonprofit organizations, religious institutions and restorative justice programs to aggregate support for his project. A Hindu temple called Sri Sathya Sai Baba, for example, donates fresh vegetables, pasta, rice and beans each week.

Mandala provides a free weekly meal to the public and offers to train the people his group serves. Nelson holds annual workshops that teach entry-level food preparation skills so attendees are eligible to take the New York City Food Protection exam. In 2018, Nelson plans to open New York City’s first donation-based brick and mortar locale to further manifest his mission of unity. Customers will be served a five-course meal and have the option of volunteering their time if they cannot afford to pay.

“The café will be open to anyone,” Nelson said. “The idea is to have folks who may not have a home with folks who are professionals and the act of sitting around a table enjoying a meal will help people get to know and understand one another.”

Mandala Cafe

(Allison Lau/NY City Lens)