Since 2005, the Department of Health has been developing an initiative to provide fresh produce and low fat milk to neighborhoods that rely on the nutrition-devoid wares of their local bodega. Progress has been slow, and while the low fat milk initiative was deemed a success in 2008, the produce side of things has been anything but. Finally, the Healthy Bodegas Initiative [pdf here] is gaining some real momentum, thanks to the NY state farmers that have begun to revitalise the project.
One such farm is Red Jacket Orchards, located in the upstate Finger Lakes region, which has had a presence at NYC greenmarkets with their apples, juices, and just about everything fruit-related for years. They've been working with the DOH but have taken it a step further, hoping to not only bring their fruit stuffs to the underserved neighborhoods in East and Central Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn, but also outfit them with proper refrigeration. Those beer fridges just don't do the job when it comes to produce. We spoke to Justone Bossert, the director of the orchard's greenmarket goings-on, to see where the initiative is headed.
Tell me about your involvement with Red Jacket Orchards, and with the Healthy Bodegas project. How did you get started? My involvement with Red Jacket Orchards stems from my own family’s farming history, a now-defunct dairy farm in New Hampshire, that had a bigger impact on me than I realized growing up. When fate led me to Red Jacket Orchards it connected in a deep way.
Red Jacket Orchards is a 3rd generation farm located in Geneva, NY owned and farmed by the Nicholson family. I’ve been working for the Nicholson family for 7 years now and I currently run our farmers market operations here in New York City. Farmer markets are a big focus for the farm because they allow us to connect directly with the customers that eat our food. We are currently at over 30 farmers markets in NYC and we really pride ourselves on our relationship with NYC customers. To make our NYC operations work, we’ve had to create new infrastructure to support and extend local food systems, which we also use to help other local farmers reach customers in NYC.
Our Healthy Bodegas Project started when Michael Hurwitz of Greenmarket and Donya Williams of the Dept. of Health of NYC approached us to help solve the problem of the lack of healthy food access in under-served communities. We are a small family farm, but we have a unique capacity in NYC and we began discussions on how to use that to help battle the inequities of our food system. Our Healthy Bodegas Project is what came from those conversations.
I see you guys at Union Square Greenmarket all the time, and in McCarren Park this past weekend. How long have you guys had a presence in the city? What’s your best-selling product? I love your juice, by the way. It's great to hear you’re a fan. The McCarren Park Greenmarket is one of our most popular. It is every Saturday and it goes year-round. We have been attending markets in the city since 1992 and unlike most farms, when we chose to commit to the Greenmarket program we also chose to become a part of NYC. We established a hub in Greenpoint and began to hire NYC-based staff so that we could become a part of this community that has given us so much support. Our best-selling product varies with what we have available as the seasons change, but some perennial favorites are our apricots, Honey Crisp apples, and our 100% Fuji apple juice.
How receptive have you found bodega owners to be to stocking the fresh fruit and using the refrigerators, when they may be taking up real estate in the store for the prepackaged products that they may initially sell more of? We are just getting started, but overall the bodega owners have been extremely supportive and excited to be involved. Many of the bodega owners want to serve healthier food but they are limited in what they are capable of doing. Beverage companies give them free refrigerators but then limit what they are allowed to put in there. If they want to sell healthy food, many of them don’t have the refrigerator space based on their agreements with the larger companies that push the unhealthy stuff. Additionally, the distributors that supply the bodegas normally don’t have healthy options and so some bodegas have gone so far as to buy fresh produce at retail and then resell it in their communities. The outcome of this is that people in these neighborhoods are paying more money for lower quality foods.
Our goal for this project is to create a sustainable and viable distribution model that will allow bodegas to sell healthy local options. A large part of this is to create a model that allows the bodega owners to profit while still creating affordable options. We want to copy the methods that have worked for junk food companies and use them for healthy local food.
How do you choose which bodegas to partner with? Our program is partnered with NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of NYC’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative. They have done a lot of great work over the years reaching out to bodegas but unfortunately don’t have the ability to actually supply them with products. Our part of it is to create a new distribution system to pick up where they left off.
The Department of Health has an extensive network of bodegas and they act as our matchmaker, finding the best bodegas to be involved with our program. We are just starting the program but we already are working with a dozen bodegas. Our goal is to have it grow much larger. We’d like for it to be a scalable model to connect farms to food deserts in NYC and elsewhere. We need support to get it there.
How much of this initiative relies on the bodega owner, once they agree to stock the fresh product? The bodega owner has to be interested in supplying healthier food. Thankfully many of the owners we have spoken to are interested. But it has to make financial sense, so we help them with signs, display, informational handouts and storage, and we work to get the word out to the community to let them know that these bodegas have healthy food for sale. The bodega owners are the ones selling the product on a day-to-day basis, but we try to offer them education and support so that are able to better do it.
Are you reducing the prices of your fruit and juice to make them comparable to the prices of the less-healthy products that are already in the bodegas? In addition to the investment we are making in getting the program up and going, we are lowering prices as much as we can to make this work, but for this to be a viable option in the future we can’t create a price that relies on outside funding. The goal is to prove that this model can bring the good food movement to those communities that have been left out of it thus far. If this is something that we want other people to adopt and adapt around the country it has to become self-sufficient at some point.
As far as comparable pricing with cheaper stuff, like junk food, that’s why the program is starting with apples. Apples are a cheap, snack-ready fruit that can compete on price with a lot of the processed stuff.
How are the customers of these bodegas reacting to the presence of new produce? Are they hesitant or receptive? Does it ever feel like a lost cause in regards to some of the customers? It has been challenging for sure, but already we’ve had quite a few success stories. Sometimes it’s a challenge to get customers to try something new; however, once a person tries fresh picked, tree-ripened fruit the “Wow” factor is huge; combine that with it’s high nutrient density and it’s the best value in the store. People notice things like that in any neighborhood. There may be some people who don’t seem interested, but there are even more who are grateful to finally have access to good food. It’s definitely not a lost cause.
Once people learn that their bodegas have healthy options, customers are reaching out to their friends and family to let them know and that is the key. If this program is going to succeed we need everyone in these communities who want fresh local food to be available to come out and support it now that it is.
Has the presence of your fruit caused demand for other produce in the bodegas? Bodega owners are excited to have a distribution route dedicated to getting them fresh local produce. Right now, it is just Red Jacket products, but we plan to grow to include other produce from our neighbors’ farms. We need to build up our capacity to get there, but the interest is there and we plan to build to meet it.
How much will you be relying on volunteers, if at all? Right now, we do not have any volunteers. While getting the program going we have been maximizing our current capacity, and many of our people have donated a lot of their time to help because this is something we all believe in. We would be open to volunteers to help get the word out in the community and do cooking demos at the bodegas.
If there are people interested in supporting this project, we need people to get the word out about our Kickstarter campaign so we can raise the funds we need to make this a success. We will be announcing the bodegas we are working with on the Kickstarter campaign website and people can shop there to show their support.
How successful would you say the city has been with the Healthy Bodegas project? And with healthy food promotion in general? They’ve done very well considering their limitations. We are very pleased that this inequity is being addressed at some level by the city government.
Your Kickstarter video talks about getting proper refrigeration to these bodegas. That sounds expensive. Will that be donation-based or will it be out of pocket for you guys? It is expensive, but it is necessary. The produce is only as good as its handling and that’s part of the reason why we need to raise funds to get this program launched. If we really want to get healthy food to these underserved areas then we also need to get the tools to keep the food healthy and fresh. Healthy, natural food needs to be refrigerated. Since most of the current refrigeration is sponsored by soda and beer, that’s what you find in them.
So long as the food is handled and stored correctly it will always win people over who try it. That is how good food has made a comeback, by winning first on pleasure with good health as a most welcome bonus.
Tell me how you envision this project in 5 or 10 years. My hope is that we will raise the money we need to get the program expanded to the point where it becomes self-sufficient and then use it as model for other places.
In five years I would like to see Red Jacket's own program grow to include food deserts in all five boroughs. The next neighborhood we are targeting after Bushwick is East New York and the Department of Health has identified bodegas we could work with in Harlem and the Bronx as well.
By the time ten years have passed I would hope there is a national discussion and consensus on how to get a vibrant local food system in every neighborhood in the country. All Americans should have access to food that will nourish not only their bodies but their communities and environments as well.