For years, if South Bronx shoppers went to their local bodega hoping to find fresh greens, they typically came away empty handed. Several campaigns to change that over the past decade have faltered. But EP Deli Grocery in Mott Haven is among a group of small shops partnering with City Harvest to try a different approach to going green.
Bodega manager Moes Seidi proudly showed off the refrigerated case in his small shop at 469 Brook Ave. containing fruits and vegetables. But Seidi hopes to have even more greens available and has recently partnered with City Harvest’s Grab n’ Go program to make his store healthier.
“A lot of people ask me for change, meaning healthy stuff,” he said. “It’s good for the business because it’s something not everybody is doing it in the neighborhood. Why not do something different?”
Two years ago, Seidi was slated to participate in a Healthy Living program organized by multiple community organizations dedicated to increasing food options in the borough. Because of a store renovation, he had to drop out, but the program did not last.
The Grab n’ Go program allows bodegas to offer fresh produce almost risk-free for 12 weeks, and gives incentives to customers to purchase healthy food.
Seidi said he hopes it will help draw customers and improve his bottom line. “Anything that makes business, I’m here for it.”
The initiative is the latest of multiple efforts to lower obesity rates in the South Bronx, which are the highest across all five boroughs, according to a New York City Community Health Survey collected in 2017. The bar graph below represents obesity rates per neighborhood.
While there are many underlying causes to high obesity rates, high on any list is the lack of convenient healthy food options. Currently, bodegas outnumber supermarkets 25 to 1, according to the city health department and the NYC Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Robert Tavera, manager of 10 Days Deli Grocery on 459 Brook Ave. said he joined the Grab n’ Go program to offer healthy food options to neighborhood children. “The children don’t have choices. We’re the ones who decide what to give them,” he said.
That struck a responsive chord from customer Joseph Montalvo. “The kids need to stop eating junk. It gives them a good reason to have one more thing to eat,” he said.
City Harvest is operating the Grab n’ Go campaign with funding from Citibank’s Community Development program. Known for collecting food that otherwise might be discarded by restaurants and grocery stores and distributing them to food pantries and soup kitchens, City Harvest is actively recruiting bodegas and delis to join the program.
Diana Malone, senior manager of food access and capacity, explained that City Harvest’s role includes connecting stories to food distributors. The current distributor is Fairway, she said.
Under the program, stores can purchase up to $150 worth of healthy food products with the assurance that the program will buy back up to $100 of unsold items. “The worst that they can do is lose $50,” she said.
Stores can also distribute $1 coupons to purchasers of any Grab n’ Go item, and receive reimbursement from City Harvest. And if a bodega doesn’t have the resources to store cold food, City Havest will offer a refrigerator.
An added benefit is that participating stores can purchase healthy food items at bargain rates, for resale to customers.
“The salad usually if you go to a really big supermarket, you get to purchase it for like $8.99. The salad that we have, exact same salad, really comparable. We sell them for $5.99,” Malone said.
Malone conceded that changing eating habits is not going to happen overnight.
“But at least if we could convince them to eat a little bit better and just try something different that they’re not so familiar with, then that’s a win,” she said.