Chips, orange drink and Laffy Taffy beckon to people in the same way that Las Vegas does. Sitting on the shelf of a city’s bodega, the products are too brightly-colored to be natural or healthy, but they’re also too tasty and cheap to pass up. “You get [fruit drink] for a quarter, you get chips for a quarter, and you got a lunch for fifty cents,” Rafi Kam says.
Last year, Kam and his friend Dallas Penn made a searing, popular YouTube skit about the lack of healthy food choices in the Bronx’s bodegas. (The aforementioned quote is from the video.) In it, the comedians sarcastically laud the bodega’s food pyramid, a free-radical triangle made up of 40-ounces, quarter water, chips and snack cakes. For the finale, they thank New York’s politicians for always letting poor people have their Tastykake, and eat it too.
The video features witty and insightful commentary, but it also reflects a stereotype that is prominent in many cities: The bodega is dirty, ugly, and full of fat people. The urban leaders of The Neighbors Project seek to change that view. They think the bodega should be a hub of the community, a spot where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds can meet—a “third place,” if you want to get academic about it.
That’s where their “Bodega Party in a Box” comes in.
Stuffed with a cook book for bodega customers, a reusable shopping bag, bodega-style flags and party invitations, the $35 “Bodega in a Box” challenges people to reconsider their views of the corner store. Proceeds go to The Neighbors Project’s concurrent goal, the Food and Liquor project, which encourages people to buy fresh produce from their local bodegas. If stores don’t have fruits or veggies, the F&L project helps citizens collaborate with store owners to stock healthy food.
The benefits of the F&L project are considerable. When you buy food at a small business around the corner, and not from a Whole Foods in a different zip code, you support the local economy. You interact with your neighbors. You can walk or take a bus to the bodega, so you use less gas. And perhaps most importantly, you help to place healthy food on a local store’s shelves, thereby fighting obesity in your neighborhood.
Obesity is a toilsome thing to battle, especially in cities. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Alberta confirmed what most city folk already know: lower-income neighborhoods are close to stores with more high-calorie foods, and far from large supermarkets with fresh food. It’s no surprise, then, that researchers found that people in lower socioeconomic brackets are also more obese.
“It’s easy to go into a store and buy pop soda and a pickle. It’s cheap and you get a high from it,” Kit Hodge, CEO of The Neighbors Project, says. “We want to change that knee-jerk reaction, and give people the opportunity to eat good food.”
The Neighbors Project takes an honorable stab at this massive problem. Their inability to tackle its nuances, though, is evident in the “Bodega Party in a Box.” The product’s cookbook, which should feature recipes that bodega shoppers can actually use, caters to people who are buying cilantro from Whole Foods on the sly. While some recipes are spot-on (peanut butter and banana sandwiches), most are impossibly optimistic.
Focaccia, calling for yeast, queso cotija cheese and Mexican chorizo sausage? Thai Carrot Soup, made with coriander, cumin and leeks? Eggplant and chickpea salad, complete with kosher salt and feta cheese? I can barely find these ingredients at Trader Joe’s, let alone at my local bodega.
But then, maybe that’s the point. Vegetables, meats and spices should be in my local corner store. Unfortunately, “Bodega Party in a Box” doesn’t tell me what to do until then. *text was corrected since initial post.