The Healthy Bodegas Initiative: Bringing Good Food to the Desert

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Inside the ambitious plan to convince New York City's more than 10,000 bodegas to stock fresh fruits and vegetables on their shelves.

Sarika Bansal

"Healthy food in bodegas?" asked Ibrahim Hilou, owner of a convenience store in Central Harlem. "You're wasting your time. Go 96th and down. Over here, they like it sweet. I made a coffee today with eight sugars."

Like most bodegas in New York City, Hilou's store is relatively small -- the customer area measures about 400 square feet -- and its shelves are stocked with non-perishable goods like potato chips and canned soup. The refrigerators are filled with artificially sweetened beverages, full fat milk, and beer. A counter sells hot sandwiches lathered with mayonnaise and cheese. The register is decorated with lottery tickets and candy bars.

Meanwhile, in a neglected corner, a self-standing metal shelf contains an assortment of fruits and vegetables. The bananas are overly ripe and the potatoes are of poor quality. Few people buy produce in Hilou's shop; most of the onions end up in breakfast sandwiches, the store's most profitable product.

New York City has over 10,000 bodegas like Hilou's. In some New York neighborhoods, particularly lower income ones, bodegas are often the default option for groceries. In parts of Brooklyn, they comprise over 80 percent of food retail (PDF).

Dugeidy Ortiz, an outreach coordinator, spoke of one Harlem bodega owner who revamped his store and lost 20 pounds.

Unfortunately, the bodega business model lends itself to selling non-perishable foods that are often unhealthy. Bodega owners have thin profit margins and severe cash constraints, making them unlikely to take risks. They want to ensure every inch of shelf space is filled with affordable goods of interest to their customers. Fresh produce is inherently risky because of its relatively high price and short shelf life. "Sometimes I bring a box of apples," Hilou said, "but I throw half of it away. Not worth it."

Perhaps not surprisingly, New York's "green deserts" -- that is, neighborhoods with limited access to nutritious food -- also suffer the city's highest rates of obesity and diabetes. Approximately 60 percent of adults (PDF) in East and Central Harlem are either overweight or obese, and less than 10 percent of Harlem residents eat the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

The New York City Department of Health thinks bodegas can -- and must -- play an important role in correcting this. In 2005, the department launched the Healthy Bodegas Initiative to increase nutritional offerings in at-risk neighborhoods. "We know bodegas are a main source of food in these neighborhoods," said Sabrina Baronberg, deputy director of the department's Physical Activity and Nutrition Program. "And when we look inside, the majority of them have unhealthy food and unhealthy advertising."

To date, the Initiative has worked with over 1,000 bodegas in East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn. Interventions typically last about six months and are tailored to the store. In some stores, they introduce healthier canned items, diet soda, multigrain bread, and low-fat milk. If the storeowner is more ambitious, the Initiative helps the bodega begin stocking fresh produce. The Initiative has even bought smoothie blenders and "fruit salad starter kits" for bodega owners interested in selling higher-end products.

Greenmarket, a project of New York City's Council on the Environment, has taken a more drastic measure to bring healthy food into bodegas. They have recently begun giving bodegas refrigerators in which to keep seasonal fruits, vegetables, and 100 percent juice. "People are asking and demanding better products," said Michael Hurwitz, Greenmarket's executive director. "We thought we'd provide bodegas with the infrastructure to store and display these products, and work with an existing distributor to get them there."

The Healthy Bodegas Initiative and Greenmarket both hope increased availability of nutritious food will eventually make communities healthier. At the same time, they recognize the tremendous challenges associated with effectively changing people's food habits.

"The biggest challenge," said Baronberg, "is supporting [bodega owners] in making that first step. The supply and demand hang on each other so strongly. The store may be unwilling to stock an item because they're afraid no one will buy it."

While some storeowners are enthusiastic about the opportunities the Initiative can bring (Dugeidy Ortiz, an outreach coordinator, spoke of one Harlem bodega owner who revamped his store and lost 20 pounds), others are doubtful. In particular, many do not think their customers are interested in nutrition. "Over here, they don't eat healthy food," said Roberto Suero, who works at an East Harlem bodega with a Greenmarket fridge. "They try, some people, but normally, it's just regular junk food."

Dr. Robert Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, believes the skeptical bodega owners have a point. "Thinking from the libertarian point of view, I don't know that bodega owners can be faulted for meeting a public demand [for unhealthy food]," he said. "And it's not as if the stereotype is wrong, especially when the bodega owners see that when they stock [unhealthy food], it gets purchased."

In addition to increasing supply of healthy food, Fullilove believes groups should develop public education campaigns to increase demand for nutritious food in at-risk neighborhoods. The Healthy Bodegas Initiative has undertaken this to an extent, in the form of cooking demonstrations and informative posters. Greenmarket has also tried to bring chefs into Harlem bodegas.

Though individual actions have met with success, they are, according to Baronberg, easily dwarfed by multinational beverage and snack companies. "We put up healthy ads in the windows, and the next day we come back and they've been replaced," she said. "We just don't have the manpower or finances to compete with that. A bodega is just a small player in this very large issue of unhealthy foods being heavily marketed and being less expensive."

To combat the affordability issue, the Healthy Bodega Initiative and Greenmarket both offer programs to reduce the cost of healthy food. For instance, they only work with bodegas that accept food stamps and EBT. In addition, the Healthy Bodega Initiative offers Health Bucks to food stamp users to subsidize produce in farmers' markets.

They have also tried to make healthy eating as affordable as possible. Greenmarket's juices are comparable in price to other drinks, and the Healthy Bodega Initiative's "healthy sandwich combos" cost the same as unhealthy sandwiches.

Only time will tell whether these efforts will improve communities' health. Until then, Baronberg, Hurwitz, and others cling to the belief that people across New York City -- regardless of location or socioeconomic status -- want their families to eat well and lead healthy lives. They just need a food environment that makes it possible to do so.

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Sarika Bansal is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in The New York TimesForbes, and The Guardian.  She previously worked in management consulting with McKinsey & Company and in microfinance business development in India.

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