Harlem’s Health Oasis: An Alcove of Wellness Amidst a New York City Food Desert

By Allison Lau, Alexandria Bordas, Zhiming Zhang

Harlem has been locked in a battle against obesity and diabetes for years. In East Harlem alone, the 13th poorest of New York City’s 59 community districts, one in three adults are obese, which is the highest proportion of obese adults in all New York City neighborhoods. The childhood obesity rate is over 23 percent.

The diabetic rates are equally as staggering – 18 percent of adults in East Harlem are diabetic, with most of the cases being type 2 and strongly associated with obesity. Heart disease, cancer and diabetes, all conditions related in part to diet, accounted for 35 percent of the years of potential life lost in East Harlem between 2002 to 2004.

Many factors contribute to East Harlem’s health crisis, but access to healthy, affordable food options has been one that’s drawn the most concern among community activists. East and Central Harlem have been called “food deserts”, which is defined as a geographic area where residents’ access to healthy, affordable food options, particularly fresh fruits and veggies, is restricted or non-existent.

But there is hope in Harlem’s desert: the Oasis Jimma Juice Bar, a safe haven for wellness that offers over 50 varieties of immunity-boosting green smoothies, fresh-pressed juices and vegetarian snacks for health-conscious New Yorkers on the go. Oasis has been a staple to Harlem since 2012. Many of the authentic Ethiopian recipes were inspired by the founder’s African roots and background in homeopathic treatment.

Abdusalam Abajabal, an immigrant from Ethiopia known as Abdi, opened Oasis Jimma Juice Bar after struggling with his own nutritional setbacks. When he first came to the U.S., he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Abajabal found the bodegas to be a cheap and easy solution when he was hungry, but he soon realized how damaging processed foods were to his body. So he decided to radically change his lifestyle.

In Ethiopia, Abajabal learned about treating diseases such as diabetes by using homegrown vegetables and other holistic remedies. He decided to open a juice bar to share his knowledge with others who may be unfamiliar with how to best take care of their bodies. Today, Abajabal is no longer a diabetic.

Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has become a neighborhood hot spot. Right on the border of Harlem, Abajabal treats each customer like family – fist bumping and calling regulars by name. He offers workshops and community events in order expand his reach to low income neighborhoods, people who never would’ve had access to green juices and beet smoothies otherwise.