Lack of access to healthy food is an unfortunate reality for the residents of many South Bronx communities. Fast food restaurants and bodegas make up much of the food landscape and healthy options are few and far between. To address this issue, Bronx Health REACH partnered with Citizen Schools, an after school program for low income communities across the country, to teach an 11 week apprenticeship program on food access at MS 331. 14 students from the middle school and Bronx Health REACH staff worked with West Tremont Deli Grocery Corp, a neighborhood bodega frequented by many students and teachers, to provide healthier food options. Prior to working with Bronx Health REACH and Citizen Schools, the bodega had been a participating store in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative, a program focusing on increasing the availability and promotion of healthier foods in local corner stores.
The 11 week apprenticeship, called Adopt-A-Bodega, incorporated education on nutrition, healthy eating, food access, and marketing techniques with direct action. After learning about health issues, the students brainstormed about what they would like to do to change the bodega right in front of their school that serves many of them on a daily basis. As a class, they came up with four student/ teacher lunch specials that included a healthy deli sandwich (or salad) on whole wheat bread, a bottle of water, and a piece of fruit for a discounted price. Though the bodega owner was initially skeptical about the promotion, it ended up being very popular and the increase in his business made him more open to working with the students on other initiatives.
In addition to the lunch special, the students worked with the bodega owner to sell healthier snack options, such as granola bars and Baked Lays, which the students had taste tested during one of their lessons. The students also requested that the bodega stock more fruits and vegetables, but the owner initially refused as there wasn’t any room to put them. The NYC DOHMH donated a beautiful wooden produce display that was placed in the very front of the store, next to the cash register, so that customers had easy access to it. This display allowed the bodega to stock nearly double the amount of fresh fruit and also increased business because it presented the food in an appealing way. As the students learned, many successful business ventures hinge on presentation.
Throughout this apprenticeship, the students learned that supply is heavily influenced by demand. If you demand healthier food, and business owners see that they can increase sales, they will be more likely to provide the healthier food. Using this model of social change, Bronx Health REACH hopes to continue improving access to healthy foods in bodegas across the Bronx.
Efforts to increase healthy food options as a way to address the childhood obesity epidemic are receiving national attention and support. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign includes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which provides financing for developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets selling healthy food in underserved areas. Throughout the country, cities and states are working within their communities to identify food deserts and find solutions to increase healthy food options in those areas. (Read a prior blog post about food deserts here.)
In the South Bronx, West Tremont Deli Grocery Corp has made an important contribution in making the neighborhood a healthier place to live. Bronx Health REACH and New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera hosted an event on December 21st to honor the bodega owner on his dedication. Read more about the event and Senator Rivera’s comments here.