By TRONE DOWD
Public Health Solutions (PHS), the largest nonprofit focused on health and family issues in New York City, might have found a cheap and profitable way to make the borough’s most food-insecure communities healthy.
In a yearlong study involving more than 130 bodegas in Jamaica, PHS concluded that making minor adjustments to the presentation of healthy foods in bodegas as well as increasing the visibility of these foods resulted in a significant uptick in healthy items sold. This discovery is a breakthrough for communities where food insecurity and such health-related issues as heart disease continue to be a problem.
In an interview with the Queens Tribune, PHS president and CEO Lisa David said that the study was powered by the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) via a federal grant received in 2015. The GJDC is just one of many organizations that work to bring attention to this issue.
“We do work with the help of a voluntary group of about 70 organizations trying to do initiatives that increase access to healthy foods,” David said.
She said that Jamaica was one of two Queens neighborhoods—the other being Jackson Heights—that could be identified as a “food swamp,” which is an area where unhealthy food options, such as fast-food and junk-food outlets, heavily outweigh healthy alternatives. A PHS spokeswoman told the Queens Tribune that food swamps are distinct from food deserts—areas where healthy food options are few and far in between—and have only recently come under the scrutiny of health organizations and city agencies alike. After identifying these areas, the next part of the study involved focusing on the establishments that contribute to this issue.
“The second part of the study was to focus on testing the large number of corner stores, our best asset available to people in that community,” David said. “We wanted to see if we could provide a relatively low-cost intervention that could make a difference on people having access and purchasing healthy food.”
As explained by David, it was important that the solution found an affordable way to benefit both the community and store owners, who often don’t see soaring profits from month to month.
“[Bodega owners] are really entrepreneurs,” she said. “At the end of the day, they’re running a very challenging small business and many of them are immigrants.”
Of the 139 bodegas involved in the study, more than half offered some sort of fresh fruit or vegetables to customers. However, canned veggies were more common at these establishments. The study also found that only 26 percent of these bodegas displayed healthy foods in prominent places where they would be visible within five seconds of entering the store. Lastly, PHS found that of the stores that offer hot and cold sandwiches, less than 20 percent of them displayed healthy options, such as wheat bread.
While the study found concrete evidence of the impact of such issues, the phenomenon is not unprecedented, according to some health advocates. Ben Thomases, the executive director of Queens Community House, told the Queens Tribune that he was familiar with the issue of how healthy food is presented in these areas.
“People want healthier food options, and I think sometimes business people misunderstand or make assumptions about the level of demand in communities for fresh and high-quality fruits and vegetables,” Thomases said. “I’m definitely familiar with the concept of making fresh foods more visible in the store. I know that’s especially a challenge in bodegas. When they do have them, where they’re placed in the store and how they’re presented are a turnoff to people.”
Thomases said that teaching these stores how to better market the products is important for such communities as Jamaica, where Queens Community House hosts one of 40 different locations throughout the borough.
Jerome Nathaniel, community engagement manager at City Harvest, seconded Thomases’ sentiment. He told the Queens Tribune that he and the organization noticed a correlation between the presentation of healthy foods and their marketability.
“I do outreach in Northwest Queens, which includes Long Island City, Astoria, parts of Woodside and parts of Sunnyside,” he said. “In this region, there are four major NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] developments: Queensbridge, Astoria, Ravenswood and the Woodside Houses. A lot of people I speak with there, they point to there being limited options in terms of regular fruit and vegetables. And when they are, you think of the stereotypical image of the bruised apple on the cash register.”
To assist these bodegas in righting these wrongs, PHS offered a variety of strategies, including signage, merchandisers, food preparation equipment, technical assistance and education about sourcing healthier items. Store owners were also provided countertop display baskets; flat display baskets; and large, freestanding, three-tiered floor baskets. According to the study’s recent report, the results were astounding.
“It made a difference,” David said. “More than half of them saw an increased sale of fruit. One quarter of them reported an increase in the sale of vegetables and healthy deli combinations.”
The study also found that 63 percent of the stores had to restock healthy foods more frequently than before. And lastly, eight of every nine stores found that organizing healthy foods and making them more prominent improved the overall appearance of the establishment and made it more inviting for customers.
David said that she was proud of the study and PHS’ ultimate conclusion. And while the study came to fruition as the result of a federal grant provided by a third party, she said that PHS would be “delighted to do more of this.”
Not only do the changes benefit local business, but they also have long-term effects.
“Through our work in underserved communities, we’ve seen that increasing access to more nutritious food options for children can have immense impacts on their development and reduce their health risks as adults,” David said. “It was encouraging that our low-cost interventions made tangible differences for community members and corner-store owners.”