Bernell: A reexamination of my neighborhood’s food choices

After a thorough story on organic food and making healthy choices I decided to reexamine my neighborhood to see if anything has changed in terms of health food choices since I changed my diet two years ago. As I have mentioned before, about two years ago my entire family made a choice to live a healthy lifestyle. Now I will be the first to admit I have a ways to go in terms of my weight goals. However, when I started my plans to juice regularly and eat more vegetables and I had few places where I could buy them affordably. However, I am glad to say that my neighborhood now has more healthy and organic choices than two years ago. In this article I will compare two fruit stands and two supermarkets that have changed their entire produce section to accommodate organic and healthy food customers.

This is a picture of the Amish Market located on West 49th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan. This is where I purchase most of my produce for my family. In order to do this I must pay 30 dollars for parking and pick up my son every other Friday so we can buy enough produce for our family. So as I investigate stores in my own neighborhood they needed to have the same quality of food as a minimum requirement… Here are some pictures of their produce:

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                                                                My Neighborhood              

University Avenue and Fordham Road (University Heights Neighborhood)

                                  Relationship Status

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                           Homes with Kids

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                             Age Distribution

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Statistics courtesy of http://www.zillow.com/local-info/NY-New-York/University-Heights-people/r_343213/

 THE CRITERIA

Like most of you, I am a creature of habit. So I love driving into Manhattan on Fridays and making a day of my produce shopping. However, if I can save money and still get great quality produce then I must yield to logic and shop in my neighborhood. Also, I must mention that I am writing this story in April 2014, the height of the grower’s season. So while my Amish Market may have great produce year round, my local store may not be committed to that practice. Thus, I created this list:

1)      The store must sell produce year round and offer organic choices

2)      The store must be able to use EBT and various forms of currency being that my mother and brother are both on fixed income and use SNAP benefits regularly

3)      Offer some form of delivery service and not be OVERLY pricy. For this I used Amish Market as a price model. They operate in mid-Manhattan and pay ridiculous rent prices so they would have the largest markup that would affect price.

Other Factors:

Of course I will talk about other factors. E.g. the amount of organic produces offered? Does the store offer delivery so I can save on my driving miles? Last, how often do they receive new produce and stock? Fruits and vegetables should be fresh; if not, then for me this entire experiment is not worth it. My family has adapted to fruits and vegetables that have great substance and taste. So vegies that sit for days at time will not be acceptable to my family’s pallet.

The Stores

To make this process fair I’ve chosen four stores. Two large chain grocery stores and two local vegetable stands that have recently opened up in the area.  In terms of geography we are starting our trip on University Avenue and Fordham Road. For those whom don’t know the Bronx Fordham Road is a major shopping area in the Bronx. During the summer there are many fruit and vegetables carts all over the Fordham road area however they are seasonal. They mostly make their money during the months of April and October where Fordham Road is most busy. In addition, about 10 blocks away from our starting location is the only farmers market in the Bronx. This is located at Poe Park at 190th Street and Grand Concourse. Like the food carts they only operate on a seasonal basis. Also, they seldom take EBT or SNAP food stamp benefits so they would not be sufficient for my comparison.  Of course about 1 mile away is the oldest farmers market in New York located at 180th Street and Broadway. My Colleague Jean Marc discussed the market in an earlier blog. However, as close as that market is to me driving will be a must once I purchase the food and that is one of the criteria I’m hoping to avoid.

THE STORES

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LOCATED on University Avenue and Fordham Road

This store is one of the Chain supermarkets that I chose for my comparison. As you can see from their banner ad they take all forms of payment including SNAP food stamps and they deliver. The fruit and vegetables are surprisingly affordable compared to Amish Market prices and quite frankly it looks good. One of the drawbacks is that they offer a limited supply of organic produce and vegetables but after speaking to the store’s produce manager, Jose Vendez, he promises that “in the next few months we are working with local farmers to buy more organic produce as an option for our customers.  Many of our customers come in asking for these products, especially in the past two years, that we must keep up or lose the customer to our competitor. “

Mr. Vendez went on to tell me how they started rotating their old produce daily and giving away their old produce for distribution to the local church food banks in the area. Because each store carried different varieties of the same produce e.g. McIntosh apple vs Generic Green apple, I could not make a direct comparison, however, I can say based on my Amish Market prices that they are very competitive and a welcome change to when I came here three years ago.

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Located one block North of C town (University Avenue and Grand Avenue)

In their defense this store is still new: about 6 months old. So when I asked to speak to the produce manager and he thought I was from immigration, I knew that this interview would not go well. They offer fruits and vegetables with some organic choices, however, after noticing that the fruit flies and other rodents were easily visible, I don’t recommend you shop at this store. My photographer Malik Frank (and yes my son) was asked to leave after they saw him taking pictures of the produce. In every other location going forward they welcomed us with open arms, because many student journalists from nearby Fordham University constantly write stories about food establishments each month in their school newspaper. Thus, I suggest you avoid Sales and keep walking two more blocks north toward our next store.

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Located one block north of Sal’s Vegetable (Fordham Road and Davidson Avenue)

Like Sales Vegetable Market “Food Dynasty” is new to our neighborhood, open less than one year. The manager, Tom Flevins, doubles as produce manager. He told me that local growers and farmers in the Washington DC area created the Food Dynasty franchise originally. Although they have recently merged with the A @) P food chain, they still cling to their roots selling produce and vegetables in inner city markets at a fair price. Manager Flevins states “Organic food is one of our top priorities this year. Our research has shown that given a choice many customers will buy organic over non organic as long as the price is fair. We want to be that fair marketplace for our customers.”  As you can see by the pictures the fruits and vegetables are more affordable than those sold at my Amish Market, however Organic items are in short supply. Another factor is their business longevity. Before I decide to buy 100 local I need to make sure this business will stay viable for my long term needs. Otherwise, this store is a welcome addition to our community and look forward to trying their product over the next few months.

Before I left, I sampled one of their ready-made salads for lunch. It was four dollars and came with your choice of dressing. A comparable salad on Fordham Road will cost you at least 7 dollars and still the freshness would be questionable. For now Food Dynasty ranks high on my list.

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Located two blocks north five blocks east of Food Dynasty (Jerome Avenue and 183rd Street)

In my neighborhood this store is known as the place to get a great sandwich. Please understand that is saying something with all the great bodegas and Cuban sandwiches shops in my area. However, Pioneer supermarket is also known as literally a pioneer in the community. They sell sushi, they also have a reputable fish market in house and they do catering for many of the local schools. So when I was told by my son to add Pioneer to the list of stores in our comparison I was shocked at what I found. Now in terms of organic foods, the celery is the only thing I found. However, their fruits and vegetables seemed to be amazingly fresh. Pioneer also offers many fruit cups and cuts fruit cups to order while you wait for 5 dollars a plate. Nevertheless, with no produce, the Deli manager only cares about the veggies for sandwiches and not the aisles managers on staff in the produce section. However, the manager Robert Tanz did speak with me. He said that he has taken control of this store two years ago and started with the deli section so he can bring customers in the store.

He went on to say: “With so many vegetable stands in this neighborhood I felt that upgrading our produce was not financially viable. However, many teachers wanted fruit cups and salads along with their meals. Thus, we now started to cater to that market.”  He went on to say that his stores supplier is not “organic minded” in terms of their produce. Thus, Mr. Tanz feels that organic food will be slow to arrive to their shelves.

In summary, when I started this journey almost three years ago I was surprised at how little was offered in my community. With organic and healthy foods now daily buzzwords in our diet talks it seems like the word is getting out to the public. Four stores are stacking their shelves with fresh vegetables and produce. Now in terms of me making the transition to buying my produce 100 percent locally—well, the jury is still out. I need to test these stores to see how well they handle out of season sales. Frozen veggies in the past has always been my backup, but that still requires me to drive and add on that extra cost. However, time will tell whether these stores are capitalizing on the healthy fruits and vegetable hype that the media has been spreading or are these stores supporting this change long term. Until then I will keep my options open.

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