By Ocasi Benji Levi
It was the end of August, 2013, and the nip in the morning air reminded me that summer is making its way out the door. “I’m running late and the last thing I need is a delay”. Even the wary driver slowing to give the wondering pedestrian time to safely walk across the street was a hindrance. “Come on already” was my thought. As I was approaching the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street, a sense of relief came over me, that “one more traffic light and I can catch the train, great.” The world a blur as I sped past, preoccupied with thoughts of completing the first leg of my relay to work, when from the corner of my eye I noticed the Fruit Cart, for all to see, having a drastic sale on bananas. Dang! I’m my own enemy. I hate to be late, but who doesn’t love the refreshingly sweet taste of ripe bananas? On the train there was a smile on my face while I was chewing. I congratulated myself that the unscheduled break was well worth it because instead of 5 bananas for a dollar I got 6. I win!
Around this area of Bedford-Stuyvesant the Fruit Stand is just one of the many food businesses that compete for your patronage; it’s a just a boulder in a region of mountains. Directly in front of it stands the $1.00 (speaking my language) Halal (no pork) Pizza store with its distant cousins that sell pork, lurking not too far away. However, recently for one reason or the other the pizza spot just north on Fulton was “taken out.” Across the street sits a juggernaut, KFC, but only in name, because it is rarely packed. Then, powerfully occupying the seat of dominance, you have the behemoth McDonald’s to the south. It’s frequently crowded, but I am not a fan. The intersection of Nostrand and Fulton is a mere spec of the full picture of food stores that inhabit the area.
The availability of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are meager. What are plentiful are processed foods that are boxed, frozen, or that can be reheated. Let’s begin with the drizzle of Chinese food restaurants. Then the pellets of Bodegas—independently owned stores usually on the corner—are at both ends of almost every block. Grocery store chains such as Duane Reade/Walgreens, Key Food and Food town sprinkle the neighborhood. Included are the two drops of Health Food Stores that are inconspicuously placed along the route, pedaling health out of a bottle, can or plastic bag. There were times in my recall when healthy was determined by the types of foods you ate, along with a lifestyle consisting of exercise and relaxation. During my early childhood years in the Caribbean, foods were considered “fresh from jungle,” meaning you grew them and knew its origins. If a person didn’t grow the type of fruits or vegetables they wanted to eat they would trade or “go a town” (go to the market) and buy it from another farmer.
Over the past six years in Bed-Stuy, locally based organizations have been trying to increase the availability of organic fresh fruits and vegetables (FFV). Agencies such as Bed-Stuy Farm Share that offered members in the neighborhood the opportunity to grow their own organic FFV, have closed operations due to the lack of participation from volunteers. Still other agencies enable local famers to sell their organic FFV to grocers; Bed-Stuy Bounty is one such agency. According to the website, Melissa Danielle, the owner, “believes that local economies are an integral part of a community’s health and sustainability, in which community-based asset development, local accountability, relationship building, and local ownership are prioritized.”
Trying to get an overall understanding, I went for a walk on my usual route down Nostrand Ave and asked some locals their opinions on the subjects of food cost, organic foods, and how value or nutrition determines their diets. I met Mike, a black man in his late 50s, with his bag hung over his shoulder, who was in a hurry. As long as I walked with him he was happy to answer my questions. “No problem, I know how it is to be in a hurry,” I thought to myself. When I asked about food cost he replied, “I eat out often…so about $20 a day.” “There’s one on Nostrand” was his answer when I asked if he knew of any organic food stores in the area; quickly I asked him where on Nostrand, but he wasn’t sure. He felt that healthy food accessibility and affordability was close but below average: “About 4.5,”he said. Jack and Tom, two white men in their late 20s, said they were new to the neighborhood. They spent 30% – 40% of their monthly income on food. They didn’t know of any organic food stores, so I referred them to the Bed-Stuy Bounty website. Jack stated, “Organic foods are not accessible, but there are fast foods.” Tom mentioned that in his old neighborhood around Throop Ave and Myrtle Ave, another part of Bed-Stuy, he knew of healthy food store locations. I took this chance to go back to the Fruit Cart and discovered that it is part if the NYC Green Cart program. Green Carts are mobile food carts that offer fresh produce in New York City neighborhoods with limited access to healthy foods. A Green Cart only sells fresh fruits and vegetables.
What really stuck out was the comparison of Bed-Stuy’s organic food accessibility and affordability to other parts of New York City. Rico, a Hispanic man in his late 20s who lived in East New York, Brooklyn, was really concerned with his health and dietary needs. He remarked that around Bed-Stuy there are more choices than what’s available to him in his neighborhood. He spends 20% of his monthly income on food and carefully decides what he will purchase. He said, “Sometimes I travel to Queens where my brother lives to buy healthy food.” Shannon, an Asian young woman in her early 20s visiting from Manhattan, said that she spends almost 80% of her monthly income on food. “Organic foods are not super affordable” was her response to my accessibility and affordability question. “In the City there’s not really any organic food stores.” As visitors to my community, they were able to give me a different perspective to the organic food availability questions.
So, it would seem that in my area based on the responses of the random interviews and my research, the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York is a front-runner for providing healthy foods. Through the independent organic agencies and City programs steps are taken to ensure the availability of healthy and organic foods. As Gene, a mid-40s black man says, “It is a change from beef and pork to fruits and vegetables….people have changed, eating healthier. I’m older, I can’t digest certain foods.” The change is being energized by education about the health risks and benefits of foods, local availability and local participation by organic farmers. It is essential that the organic foods are affordable and accessible. Spending a majority of your income on healthy food or having to go miles outside of your way doesn’t make too much sense when fast food restaurants, unhealthy as they may be but inexpensive, are 10 minutes away.