How the Bronx is Fighting Food Insecurity During a Pandemic

One of few local Bronx stands selling fresh produce, on Third Ave in the South Bronx (Photo by Paroma Soni for NYCityLens)

Emerging from a small bodega off Concord Ave in the Bronx, Janet Clark, 53, struggled to carry her three shopping bags full of fruits and veggies. A single mother of five, Janet lost her job as a movie theatre usher last summer, around the same time she got a diagnosis for Type 2 Diabetes, both just as COVID-19 cases in New York City soared.

“You got everything you need right here in this shop, and it’s so much cheaper. I can’t afford no fancy supermarket,” she said.

Like many residents in the area, she prefers to buy her groceries at the deli under her building rather than make the trip to the supermarket, which – in her case – is about seven blocks away. “They even got fresh tomatoes now,” she said. “And pineapples – pineapples!”

(Maps by Paroma Soni)

Clark is one of the lucky residents in the Bronx, because her bodega – along with more than 150 others across the five boroughs – is part of a citywide initiative to make healthier, fresher produce more accessible to customers in small corner stores, an effort put together in large part by local community organizations. Described as a “food desert,” the Bronx has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. This includes not having sufficient well-stocked and affordable supermarkets within reasonable commuting distance for residents.

Most people therefore rely on small bodegas, which typically have limited healthy options. According to NYC’s 2018 Food Metrics Report, more than 230,000 of its predominantly Black and Hispanic residents do not have access to nutritious, affordable food. About a third of the population receives aid from SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps), which is not accepted everywhere.

The inability to afford nutritious and sufficient food inevitably leads to unhealthy and imbalanced diets, which over time can result in poor health and lifestyle diseases like diabetes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 14% of the Bronx’s population suffers from diabetes or obesity, while 30% live in poverty—more than anywhere else in New York.

The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. As unemployment rose to record highs and most restaurants and delis shut down, people in the Bronx were left especially vulnerable. A report by Feed America projects that food insecurity in the Bronx will rise to more than 40% as a result of the coronavirus. “It’s food apartheid,” said Taisy Conk, director of Community Food Action, a food justice program within the nonprofit New Settlement. “It’s not a natural state of being that different neighborhoods have different access to foods. It’s not okay that Black and Brown communities can’t get the same food that wealthier, whiter areas do.”

New York City has several public benefits programs to aid residents in need, but grassroots organizations did a lot of the heavy lifting as well, to help people weather the storm. “A lot of community organizations are really well-positioned to help, because we know the community, they know us,” Conk added. “We can identify the need and address it.” Conk said that Community Food Action runs a farm stand in the north Bronx with local and seasonal produce, as well as advocates for improvements in the city’s food policy.

“New York City is blessed with a lot of resources, but they aren’t always clear and easily known to the public. Our job is to help people navigate the system and understand those resources,” said John Weed, executive director of BronxWorks, a nonprofit organization with 40 offices around the borough and more than 130 programs that help with evictions, homelessness, immigration, and development, among other challenges.

BronxWorks is one of the nonprofit groups working with the City’s Shop Healthy initiative, which encourages partner bodegas to make healthier options more visible and appealing for people. Run by BronxWorks’ SNAP Education and Obesity Prevention program – which also conducts workshops and information sessions on healthy cooking and lifestyles – the goal is to cultivate long-term changes in how people understand nutrition and health. They work with bodegas to add more healthy snacks near the checkout counters, place signage in junk food aisles indicating what healthy alternatives are on sale—and why they might be better—and rearrange the store layout so the fruits and vegetables are immediately visible when someone walks in.

A BronxWorks Fresh Food Farm Stand outside the Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center (Photo credit: Courtesy of BronxWorks)

The program was functioning smoothly, but the pandemic caused them to step on the gas. “We rushed to create a food resource guide in the early weeks of COVID,” said Jairy Padro, a nutritionist with the SNAP Ed program, whose operations were massively disrupted. “People didn’t know where to look for information, where to look for food. So many people lost their jobs and so they qualified for food stamps, but they didn’t know how to go about that. With schools and senior centers closed, it was tough. The lines outside our offices got longer and longer.”

Funded both by the City and private donations, BronxWorks also has a food pantry program, resources for which were stretched thin recently. “We’ve had to expand everything because of the pandemic, tenfold,” said Weed. “We used to run a pantry every other week, serving about 100 or so families. Now we do it every week and serve at least 250 families, if not more.”

The pantries offer a variety of dairy, produce, meat, and canned goods so people can choose, giving them ownership over their decisions.