Ah the Bodega....the local corner store where you can still get something on credit because chances are you will be there tomorrow and the owner more or less knows where you live.
The bodega, grocery/deli or corner store is a staple in large cities across the country, but in New York City, specifically, it's like the Ellis Island of entrepreneurship, a passage through which immigrant families regularly cross.
Whether or not a store is referred to as a “bodega” generally depends on the amount of time a person has lived in NYC (there was a time when Latino-owned bodegas were as commonplace as Starbucks) or whether there is a fully stocked Goya aisle. But, in either case, a bodega is as New York as jaywalking.
Patrons of such locations will rely on the bodega for common items like, snacks, sandwiches, cigarettes, coffee and of course Lotto tickets. But when it comes to healthy choices the bodega is often less than convenient, especially in poorer communities. The stores in more affluent areas of major cities routinely offer healthier options.
“Fresh Bodegas” aims to change that. The recently expanded grass-roots program, started by several health environmental groups, brings fresh fruits and vegetables to under-served areas by installing refrigerators and stocking stores with produce – for free.
“We wanted to bring this program to areas where healthy food was lacking. We also wanted to record the process so that we could learn from it and hopefully expand the project into other areas,” said Crilhien Francisco, Community Organizer for the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health.
The program was developed by the Alliance, environmental advocacy group GrowNYC and local state farm Red Jacket Orchards. It provides stores with the refrigeration units and produce on a consignment basis. Bodega owners are only responsible for what they sell and prices are kept reasonable for consumers.
According to Francisco, while the first batch of stores opened in Brooklyn, the recent expansion into Manhattan is an encouraging sign.
“We have expanded in Brooklyn little by little so it has been different. We are excited about the Harlem expansion because we have more of a presence there and because this is where we [the alliance] started and have spent the most energy developing programs.”
There are currently 11 stores in Brooklyn participating in the Fresh Bodegas program and 6 more scheduled for Manhattan.
“We are also interested in keeping this program sustainable,” adds Francisco. “Owners may be interested in a new unit but we want someone who is willing to do this for the betterment of the community.”
A good example of this is Alex Herrera, owner of a bodega in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
“I am of Dominican heritage and often our foods are mostly fried--so I try to make better choices then the ones that we normally grow up with. I wanted something like that for the store,” said Herrera.
And while the response to the program has been mixed, both Francisco and Herrera agree that it is having an effect. One they can learn from and build upon while hoping they are inspiring other communities to get involved.
“Some people are weary, others are curious,” added Herrera. "I get the parents involved because some of them do not know any better. They are used to giving their children the 50 cent juices or a Capri Sun. They consider those children’s drinks. But I will suggest something from the Fresh Bodegas refrigerator just to see what they think. Now I have one Mom that only buys her daughter the fresh apple juice.”
Erica Y. Lopez is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @LaloSays