Healthy Bodegas Initiative: Is It Having an Impact?

December 9, 2010
The Healthy Bodegas Initiative started in 2006 by the NYC Department of Health with the aim of improving the quality of food options in bodegas in neighborhoods with the highest rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Bed-Stuy is one of these neighborhoods, and since the program’s inception, twenty bodegas have signed on.

A representative from the program visits potential bodegas and assesses their need for an intervention based on a one-month period of data collection, looking at what products are sold, said Donya Williams, the program development specialist for the initiative.

If the data indicates that healthy foods are lacking, the representative works with willing bodega owners over a five-month period. The intervention includes twice-monthly meetings where the owners learn about stocking healthy foods, marketing these options, and connecting with community organizations that will provide new client bases.

At the end of the five months, the representative conducts another month of data collection. Then, the bodegas are evaluated every six months for one year to see whether they are continuing to meet the initiative’s criteria.

It is difficult to know the impact of these interventions in the broader Bed-Stuy community. A few of the bodega owners expressed they had seen little, if any, increase in their profits since they started offering healthy foods.

Some acknowledged that the neighborhood is changing, and that these foods attract new clients who already have healthy habits. But they didn’t know whether the previous residents were purchasing the healthier options. So was the program reaching their target—those most in need of dietary changes?

“These organic foods are too expensive for me,” said one man shopping in a bodega who had been living in Bed-Stuy since the 1960s.

Another challenge for bodega owners is securing ongoing access to fresh produce: One owner, whose bodega on Bedford Avenue has been participating in the Healthy Bodegas Initiative since 2008, told me that he had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a distributor who would provide more than just the tomatoes and lettuce he already sells.

In fact, most of the bodegas that carried the Healthy Initiative’s sign on their doors lacked fresh produce entirely. Their healthy foods seemed limited to potato chips, juices and canned vegetables with the “organic” label.

According to Williams, participating owners are provided with a list of nearby Farmers Market locations, and enthusiastic participants take it upon themselves to drive out to purchase the produce and other products they need to keep their inventory healthy.

Still, other owners see no incentive for participating in the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, feeling strongly they already know what their clients want to buy.

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