Pass the Peas

Making a Food Desert Bloom in the South Bronx

Story by Hamida Kinge

Photography by Adi Talwar

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Emely Liz can count on her small hands 10 fast food restaurants and 10 bodegas within walking distance of MS 331, her middle school in the Morris Heights section of the South Bronx. For years, Liz was a frequent visitor at many of these establishments, particularly the bodegas where she could stock up on lollipops and chocolate.

Late last fall that changed. One of 14 students to participate in a city-funded program intended to fight obesity by bringing healthier foods to low-income neighborhoods like hers, the middle-schooler became an unlikely proselytizer for healthier eating.

“Now I’m eating brown rice,” Liz said. “Instead of fried chicken, I eat eggs. I’m eating salads, fruits.”

The sixth-grader is part of a movement that, against all odds, is growing in the South Bronx. The neighborhood holds the dubious distinction of being the country’s fattest congressional district, as well as one of the poorest, according to the Census Bureau. More than in any other New York City district, South Bronx residents suffer from diet-related illnesses, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In South Bronx public high schools, roughly one in six students is obese, which is 30 percent higher than the rest of the Bronx and 42 percent higher than all of New York City. These children are more likely to become obese adults: One in four adults in the South Bronx is obese, and two in three are overweight or obese.

Given the facts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has made bringing healthy food into underserved sections of the five boroughs a priority, emulating programs that have yielded results in other cities, including Louisville, Ky. and Newark, N.J. A few years in, the buy-in has grown slowly but consistently, with new supermarkets and farmers markets sprouting up in low-income neighborhoods. Even some bodegas are getting in the game, with expanded produce offerings and healthy deli options alongside the processed foods that typically fill these corner stores.

Bloomberg has also taken steps to phase unhealthier food products out of New York: Earlier this summer, the city banned the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces. While it could take decades to assess the effectiveness of these programs, there is little doubt that already the area serves as a critical laboratory for rethinking urban food sheds and the way we live within them.

Selling Fresh

One Friday evening in January, Loyce Godfrey was in the Soundview section of the Bronx, preparing to give a workshop on diabetes prevention at one of 47 churches that she works with through an initiative put together by Bronx Health REACH. The coalition of over 70 community organizations, health care providers, faith-based institutions and housing and social service agencies is an arm of the non-profit Institute for Family Health. Half an hour before the workshop, Godfrey got hungry and took to neighborhood streets in pursuit of something to eat. After a few blocks, she found a Chinese takeout. She went in and asked for brown rice. They didn’t have any. “I had to walk several blocks before I could even find a McDonald’s,” recalled Godfrey. She settled for a couple of “seared” mini snack-wraps, minus the sauce.

Godfrey’s experience is not unique. In many areas of the South Bronx, locals face a barrage of Chinese takeouts, fried chicken joints and other fast food options. When they want to go grocery shopping, 88,000 South Bronx residents can choose from only a dozen small or low-quality grocery stores and supermarkets. In some areas of the South Bronx, there are close to zero food options for several blocks. In the Mott Haven neighborhood, for instance, residents of several housing complexes have the relative fortune of a Western Beef supermarket on 140th Street and Morris Avenue. The store — which, with its high shelves and dusty floors, feels more like a warehouse than your typical suburban supermarket — stocks many discounted processed foods, a large percentage of which are high in fat and sugar content. Its small produce section, with its bruised tomatoes and pale heads of lettuce, isn’t all that tempting.

Western Beef is one of only two food options for several blocks. Aside from Western Beef, “there is only one bodega on that strip,” explained Nancy Ortiz-Surun, a founding farmer of La Finca Del Sur, a farm located on 138th Street and Grand Concourse. “There is almost zero access to food [there].”

In comparison, the Upper West Side, with 60,000 residents, has three times the number of grocery stores and supermarkets.

There is a connection between the presence of a supermarket within a census tract alone, or in combination with a smaller grocery store and lower ratios of obesity and overweight residents, a 2006 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Obesity, however, isn’t the end of the health risks associated with living in non-foodie New York. The city has a life expectancy higher than the national average, but that statistic does not apply to extremely poor areas, including the South Bronx, where the average life is years shorter. New Yorkers in East Harlem, Williamsburg-Bushwick and some parts of the South Bronx are hospitalized for diabetes at 10 times the rate of Upper East Side residents, according to a 2007 study by the Health Department. Putting science aside, the issue is a huge quality-of-life concern for parents trying to feed families on a limited budget and without a car to travel to the nearest suburban-style supermarket.

In 2008, the Bloomberg administration came up with a way to quantify that need. Known as the Supermarket Need Index, the formula determines which areas of the city have the highest diet-related disease rates and largest populations with limited access to fresh foods. Based on index rankings, the city developed policy recommendations, including a suggestion that future rezoning regulations must consider supermarket need.

A year later, a program to spur supermarket growth called Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or F.R.E.S.H, was announced. The program, which is open to current grocery store operators as well as developers, offers zoning and financial incentives to help increase and retain supermarkets in underserved communities throughout New York City. Interested supermarkets work with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to develop business plans and obtain financial support. It’s a concept that has been tried in other cities including Louisville, Newark, Cleveland and New Orleans, which offered its first such incentive to a grocer in Central City last winter.

Nancy Ortiz-Surun founded the farm La Finca Del Sur just off Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Three years after the launch of the program, three F.R.E.S.H. projects in the Bronx have been approved for financial incentives: A Food Bazaar, an Associated Supermarket and Western Beef, which will replace the existing 140th Street store with a new supermarket. In total, the three supermarkets — two of which are already under construction — will receive tax exemptions worth approximately $6 million over the next 25 years. Western Beef, the first to receive the incentive, expects its new $11.5 million supermarket to create 120 permanent jobs. Patrick Delorio, CEO of the Queens-based chain, told the Economic Development Corporation that building the new location is “a reflection of our strong commitment to serve the communities in which we operate.” The new location will offer, among other things, a 3,000-square-foot produce department.

In the meantime, however, with only a dozen supermarkets available in the South Bronx, many residents rely on corner store bodegas for day-to-day grocery shopping. These stores, so ubiquitous in New York City, overwhelmingly stock high-cholesterol meat and dairy products, as well as walls of sugar-laden beverages and snacks.

Enter the Healthy Bodegas Initiative. The effort operates on the simple premise that if city government holds the hand of bodega owners, they will make the leap to restocking shelves with healthier fare.

Participating bodegas agree to stock at least two kinds of fresh fruits and two kinds of fresh vegetables (not including white potatoes, onions, lemons or limes), canned fruit without added sugar, low-salt canned vegetables and soups, low-fat milk (1 percent or fat free), whole grain bread and healthier snack items, such as baked chips, low-fat yogurt, unsalted nuts and pretzels. If they have a deli, they must offer and promote at least one healthy sandwich option. Bodegas are also asked to put water at eye-level, so that there are fewer sugary drinks “confronting customers,” explained Dr. Jane Bedell, assistant commissioner and medical director of the New York City Department of Health and Human Hygiene. These bodegas are also responsible for marketing some of these items in-store, with help from the Health Department. These changes mean “the healthier options are the easier options,” which is not how the city food system is “currently configured,” Bedell pointed out.

The Healthy Bodegas program is completely voluntary, and many store owners decline to participate. But for those that agree, access to training and technical assistance is there for the taking. Through the program, the city offers connections to new distributors, including local farmers and other healthful food suppliers, and materials to market the new offerings, such as in-store posters.

Often the most successful changes happen through the initiative’s Adopt-A-Bodega program, part of the Healthy Bodegas initiative, which partners community organizations with store management to encourage support for the bodega’s restocking. Both the organization and the bodega owner receive health and nutrition training, and then the bodega institutes the changes. Emely Liz’s school adopted a South Bronx bodega called the West Tremont Deli Grocery Corp. Citizen Schools — a non-profit that sends teachers into low-income schools to provide learning in things like law, science and community service — recruited a volunteer from Bronx Health REACH to provide health and nutrition training to the school. Following the training, the students lent their newfound expertise to the bodega owner and helped create a new lunch menu.

These days, Zak Aljajedi — who manages the bodega for his brother Bakil, the owner, now back in Yemen — said that he reliably gets a shipment of fruit and vegetables about every three days. And apparently, people are buying. Standing in front of a prominent display in his store on a Saturday afternoon in March, Aljajedi said that, especially in the mornings before school starts, he sees students and teachers alike order apples along with their sandwiches and chips. The stuff looks decent, like any selection from a Safeway produce aisle. Although only about three-dozen apples and bananas, four peppers and a few oranges filled the shelves, Aljejedi said he was awaiting a delivery for later that day.

Not far from Aljajedi’s deli, 152 Meat, Deli and Grocery, Inc. in the Mt. Eden neighborhood also recently began selling more fruit and vegetables. The corner store was adopted in 2011 by youth groups Bronx Helpers Cooking Garden Club and the Girls Program operated out of the nearby New Settlement Apartments.

But while these partnerships are promising, there is a lot of work to be done before anything close to a tipping point is reached. “There are a lot of bodegas in the South Bronx and the Bronx,” Bedell said in a recent interview. “This is not nearly enough of an effort to make a tremendous impact…what we’re trying to do is do the best we can with the resources we have.”

Under the Adopt-A-Bodega program, Emely Liz’s middle school adopted the West Tremont Deli Corp., a bodega in the neighborhood that now has healthy food offerings.

Last fall, New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn unveiled a set of policy recommendations aimed at improving the city’s food distribution system and ensuring that underserved communities like the South Bronx get better access to healthy foods. Asked about how the plan, called FoodWorks, will play out in the next few years, Bedell deferred to the council. But she acknowledged that, like the Healthy Bodegas program, the FoodWorks plan will face significant budgetary constraints.

“The city is suffering with budget cuts,” she said, “and our agency, and I assume all city agencies, have taken serious budget cuts over the last several years.”

There are a few other important ways Bedell and her colleagues at City Hall are attempting to increase healthy food access throughout the five boroughs. Chief among them is increasing the number of farmers’ markets in underserved areas, a change in which Quinn played a central role. (When reached for comment, Quinn, now in the midst of a mayoral race, was unavailable.) In addition to helping fund new markets, the Bloomberg administration and the council have succeeded in creating a program called Health Bucks. Distributed with the help of countless community organizations, Health Bucks offers $2 of produce for free for every $5 of produce purchased at a farmers’ market. Other efforts to expand the reach of the markets include the creation of a wireless electronic benefit transfer program, which allows consumers to use EBT at 202 farmers’ markets, eight mobile markets, 24 farms, 27 farm stands and 17 NYC Green Carts throughout the city.

Yet for underserved communities, two disadvantages of farmers’ markets remain: They are present for only six months of the year (June to November), and there are not enough of them to make produce as convenient as residents need. For that reason, the city developed the NYC Green Carts initiative in 2008, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. Green Carts are mobile produce vendor carts selling a combination of local and ethnically relevant produce. There are currently 205 Green Carts permits working in the Bronx. Ortiz-Surun said that city initiatives have been visible in some areas of the South Bronx, including a few more farmers’ markets. Some of them operate year-round.

But for many food activists, selling fresh food in low-income neighborhoods isn’t enough; they also want it to grow there. La Finca Del Sur, the farm founded by Ortiz-Surun, sits just off the Grand Concourse, smack-dab in the middle of the Port Morris neighborhood’s older industrial center. Like some kind of agricultural apparition, the farm’s greens, lettuces, eggplant, leeks, beets, carrots, potatoes, melons, tomatoes and tomatillos sprout in a landscape of auto shops and gas stations. The crops grow on raised beds, next to busy Metro-North rail tracks. Anyone can rent a raised bed for a season. And if you rent, you get seeds, organic soil and expertise, as well as the square feet of growing room. Volunteers assist newer farmers.

The Healthy Bodegas Initiative asks owners to put water at eye-level, so there are fewer unhealthy drinks “confronting customers.”

To attract more people to farm-grown produce, La Finca participates in the Mott Haven farmers’ market, selling produce while the Health Department and Just Food, a non-profit that connects communities to local farms, hold cooking and tasting demonstrations. The demos teach residents how to make kale, spinach and other crops into appealing dishes. Ortiz-Surun tries to draw people in by incorporating familiar, ethnically relevant produce in the recipes, such as cilantro and beans. She believes that making healthy foods culturally appropriate could mean the difference between whether or not residents change their diets.

“It’s a little bit about creative marketing,” said Ortiz-Surun. “It’s a little bit about giving some away so that people can see this is something that tastes good and something they can afford to make.” La Finca provides recipes and breaks down recipe prices for potential customers, “so that people are much more open to the idea of making that crop part of their traditional fare.”

At African-American churches in the Bronx, Godfrey plays a similar role to Ortiz-Surun. The workshops she leads have a culinary arm wherein Godfrey teaches menu planning and offers menu cost analysis to church members. And, like Ortiz-Surun, Godfrey leads taste tests at farmers’ markets in the South Bronx.

This summer, La Finca also began selling produce at its own farm stand on 138th Street, easily visible through the windows of nearby public housing complexes — the residents of which, Ortiz-Surun explained, are the farm’s target customer. If all goes as planned, the stand will be soon open weekly. La Finca also hopes to soon be able to make sales using methods other than cash.

A CSA for 99 Percent

Unlike La Finca, dreams of locals are not always realized. The South Bronx Food Co-op (SBFC), which began in 2007 and was named the Bronx Small Business of the Year in 2010, closed its doors in December of that year. Attempts to reach SBFC resulted in disconnected phone numbers and email bouncebacks. Ortiz-Surun said she believes that SBFC’s failure was a result of a few things, including insufficient outreach and the fact that many of the participants were young Caucasians, “who long-time residents equate as ‘gentrifiers,’ and which likely made some of the community feel like this wasn’t meant for them,” she explained.

“Engaging all sectors of the community” with more events and outreach would have helped them attract more interest and survive, Ortiz-Surun said.

She, along with many others, is a firm believer in non-traditional models for agricultural or fresh food initiatives in low-income communities. One of her favorites is Corbin Hill Road Farm, a network of farmers based in upstate New York that distributes its produce in Harlem and the Bronx through strategic partners. Corbin Hill started delivering to the Bronx in 2010. Right now in the South Bronx, they make farm share deliveries to employees and program participants at organizations such as the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center and the 163rd Street Improvement Council for its communal meal program.

Corbin Hill differs from the traditional community sponsored agriculture (CSA) model, since the needs of the South Bronx community are different than those of the typical CSA consumer in more affluent neighborhoods. Corbin Hill “is tailored to meet the needs of low-income communities,” said Sabrina Wilensky, general manager of Corbin Hill. “We’re trying to be as flexible as possible, as affordable as possible, and ultimately as culturally relevant as possible for the communities that we’re working in.”

This means that instead of offering the standard seasonal subscription paid upfront in one sizable bulk payment, Corbin Hill works on a farm share model, which sells “shares” to members on a weekly or monthly basis. Members can buy shares for as little as $12 per week, using food stamps whenever they need to, and get a variety of seven or eight vegetables and a fruit. By comparison, the Park Slope CSA, in affluent brownstone Brooklyn, costs about $22 a week, and becoming a member requires dropping $490 or $245 upfront for a full season of weekly or biweekly vegetable baskets. You must pay additional fees for fruit or other farm goods. (The Park Slope CSA also accepts food stamps, charging $11 per weekly veggie basket to food stamp recipients and $6 per week for fruit.)

Demographics-wise, Corbin Hill differs from other farms both in its membership and its backers. In upstate New York, farming isn’t the most racially diverse industry, with most farm owners white and many workers Latino. The industry is also overwhelmingly male. Yet the first group of investors in Corbin Hill was 72 percent African-American, and over 50 percent of the investors were women.

“We are really proud that our investors are reflective of the communities we work in,” Wilensky said. The organization seeks to become a kind of cooperative, with program participants joining initial investors as owners of the farm. It is working with lawyers and law schools to figure out how to realize this goal. “We want the farm and the company to be owned by the community,” said Wilensky.

Is the farm share model the best way for poor neighborhoods to get fresh produce? In Wilensky’s opinion, it is one key element. “The true solution for a food desert neighborhood is to have a variety of different food sources,” she said.

“We see the farm share as part of a larger food system,” Wiliensky said. “It’s not going to cure everything, but it’s definitely working at reconnecting all the broken links that have been caused.”

No matter the business model, getting locals to change the foods they prefer plays a crucial role in getting them to change their eating habits. One thing Godfrey and Ortiz-Surun agree on is the idea that giving people the chance to taste fresh produce may be the best way to convince them to add it into their daily diet.

The Paradox

Unlike other food deserts, the South Bronx is a paradox: It is home to the world’s largest food distribution center, Hunts Point Terminal Market, and yet its residents see very little of the food abundance that lies inside their district. The reason for this is that the food in Hunts Point is wholesale distributed to supermarkets throughout the region, few of which exist in the South Bronx.

Steve Smith, a developer from New Jersey, wants to change that. He is currently developing a regional fresh food campus on his 15-acre property in the Bronx’s Oak Point, sandwiched between the East River and the Oak Point Rail Yard. When Smith bought the property in 2009, the city had been eyeing it for a new jail. The neighborhood was bitterly opposed, and Smith began talking to people in the community about what they would like to see there instead.

As Smith began working to clear the site and determine its future, he noticed that working in such an underserved area was taking a toll on his health. There was nothing healthy to eat for miles. “I have money and I’m gaining weight like crazy here in the Bronx,” he recalled telling a local congresswoman. Soon enough, his idea for a food campus was born.

The campus is gradually starting to take shape. In 2010, Smith’s company, Oak Point Property LLC, sold 12 acres of the site to wholesale distributor Jetro Cash and Carry and Restaurant Depot, which supplies produce and consumables to bodegas, small supermarkets and restaurants all over New York City. This year, the behemoth food depot opened its doors. Oak Point Property is currently in negotiation with a second wholesale distributor that used to manage the distribution of produce out of Hunts Point. If they close a deal, they would supply mid-size supermarkets throughout the region, creating a centralized business cluster that calls to mind recent attempts to establish a tech hub on Roosevelt Island.

For the Bronx, a key problem of access to affordable, healthy, local foods in urban areas boils down to transportation. Smith explained, for instance, that the cost is high if a distributor picks up a truck full of apples from a farm in upstate New York, delivers them in the city and returns to the distribution center with an empty truck.

The big problem with local producers is that “they don’t have the firepower that some of the big California producers have” to offer fresh food at affordable rates, Smith said. For him, the “firepower” is in consolidated — and more affordable — transportation options. Following the lead of California producers, Smith would like to streamline the transportation by aggregating farmers so that trucks are shared. There shouldn’t be “four or five separate trucks, with four or five separate drivers,” Smith said, explaining that fuel and labor cost savings would be passed onto the customers.

Other than changing the regional distribution paradigm, Smith is currently building a floor at Oak Point that he envisions will be used for large-scale food prep and packaging. The goal is an incubator space for small or startup food-service companies. “They would benefit from the shared resources, so they don’t have to go out and set up their own kitchen facilities,” Smith said. He is also speaking to a number of organizations about the possibility of having CSA programs, food co-ops and a rooftop hydroponic greenhouse to grow local produce.

Community advocates say Smith’s vision is a good one. “We are extremely supportive of Oak Point being utilized to help our neighborhood…gain access to healthy foods,” said Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of THE POINT, a Hunts Point community development corporation that focuses on youth development and economic revitalization.

Not far from THE POINT’s community center, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center has already started working to connect Bronx families to fresh food. Recently the non-profit center created a healthy food education program, and a buying club called La Canasta. “Oak Point could potentially be a great resource for La Canasta and make food accessibly easier,” said Heidi Hynes, the center’s executive director. “It also has the potential to significantly increase access to fresh food for every neighborhood in the Bronx.”

Learning to Prefer the Inconvenient

Hynes and hundreds of other South Bronx community advocates are trying to change the way parents, and consequently children, eat. The increasingly vibrant field includes the Cornell Cooperative Extension, City Harvest and the Food Bank, as well as the Children’s Aid Society, the Mary Mitchell Center, Bronx Health Reach and THE POINT.

Another hopeful development is the creation of the Citywide School Gardens Initiative, a city-funded program providing low-income schools with grants to improve school gardening programs and integrate food grown in the gardens into school lunch menus. The program — a collaboration between Grow NYC, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and several government agencies — has at least one major health benefit: Garden to School Café, which has been implemented in over 50 schools so far. Garden to School Café connects the school garden to school lunch through educational activities and harvesting events.

But even with healthier lunchroom options, a few more supermarkets and a few more healthy items available at a small percentage of bodegas, obesity-inducing foods are readily available everywhere you turn in the South Bronx. Numerous studies show that the cheapest calories come from fried foods, chips and sodas — and the companies that produce these foods certainly aren’t shy about marketing in low-income communities.

To combat the deluge of ads for processed food and soft drinks, the city began a campaign of its own. The anti-sugary beverage marketing campaign depicted scenes such as a man drinking a glass of fat. “Some people found those ads hard to watch, and I think that was partly the point,” Bedell said. So far, the campaign seems to be working — at least, it works better than the heavy-handed, failed attempt by Mayor Bloomberg to ban food stamp recipients from using public assistance to buy soda (though the effects of his more recent ban on selling large sodas remain unclear so far).

Rather than attempt to outlaw behavior, the revolting public service announcements seem to be working through the power of suggestion. Emely Liz said posters at her school showing the scary amounts of sugar and acid contained in soda were a turning point for her. The posters “showed what soda does to you,” she said. Posters depicting the fat contained in fried foods, she said, convinced her to give up fried chicken. Liz has a warning for South Bronx children: “Be careful what you eat.” She has an equally blunt message for retailers and restaurateurs in her neighborhood: Sell less fast food and more healthy food.

A previous version of this article misspelled Emely Liz’s name.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Adi Talwar is an award-winning photographer based in New York city. He shoots for various publications, corporate and non-profit clients. He is passionate about photographing people and capturing their emotions.

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