Juicing Food Deserts
Felicia “Freckles” Forbes knew she needed to lose some weight but wasn’t too concerned until a test revealed she had high cholesterol. At age 26. She was shaken. Freckles worked in hospitals and the dietary department in nursing homes; she knew the diagnosis could lead to serious health problems. So Freckles took stock of what she was eating. And got serious about juice.
Like many New Yorkers, Freckles lived and worked in a food desert—places where bodegas and greasy fried food are practically the only dining options. City-mandated warnings about sugar and sodium content don’t help much if there aren’t healthy alternatives. Freckles had to make a dramatic change. In the process, she unwittingly formed a juicing community.
“My church was doing a 21-day fast where you could only eat vegetables, so I started juicing them,” she said. “Once I started juicing I saw the changes in my life. But I’m not going to lie: It took seeing the changes in others for it to sink in.”
Co-workers started depending on Freckles to bring juices for lunch, knowing they’d otherwise eat junk. Demand grew quickly, especially after friends started to promote Freckles’s concoctions on social media. In a whirlwind few months she quit institutional health care and opened Freckle’s Juice on Dyre Avenue with her cousins in October 2015. They join other brave Bronx entrepreneurs bringing life to the desert—oases serving juice.
The Freckle’s Juice menu is divided into three sections. Smoothies include the One Love Chuck, which features beets, mango, spinach, agave and pineapple juice. Juices include the Kev Shaw: pear, cucumber, ginger and wheatgrass. The signature drink is on the Filler Upper menu: the nutty Al-MoGoodness, a creamy blend of almond milk, mango, kale, banana, orange and lemon.
As good as the juices are, foot traffic on Dyre Avenue is skeptical and a large part of Freckle’s Juice customers drive in. “People have this notion that healthy tastes nasty. But then they try it and they’re, like, ‘Oh, wow, this tastes good. That’s better than I thought,’” she said. “It’s difficult to get healthy food. And not everyone is health conscious. A lot of people don’t care that we’re there. So we have to educate the public.”
Freckles’s cousin and Operations Manager Monay Bernard said people come in scared of the ingredients but leave happy. “They’re, like, ‘Oh, beets are disgusting. I’m not eating no beets.’ They’re scarred from beets. But then they’re, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know beets were so sweet,’” she said. “That’s a step we’re working on, getting people in here. They’re surprised a green juice can taste good.” Bernard said a recent customer gave the juice oasis the ultimate compliment, saying “I’m so glad you are here because otherwise I wouldn’t be eating healthy at all.”
In Yonkers, deep in another food desert, hip-hop stars Jadakiss and Styles P are using the power of their celebrity to spread the message of better health through juicing. In a dramatic online video they say they had no idea what constituted good food while growing up in the neighborhood, and even if they had it was nearly impossible to find something healthy. With their juice bars, Juices For Life, they’ve set about to change that. While the video explicitly promotes the personal and social benefits of healthy eating, it’s careful to maintain gritty, street-wise hip-hop stylings that help draw customers. “There’s nothing soft about juicing,” Jadakiss says in the video.
Juices For Life opened in Yonkers in 2011, and later a second Bronx bar on Castle Hill Avenue. Juice bar manager Akil Rollocks said at first the rappers’ popularity alone was driving business but that they now have a broad mix of dieters, body builders, people attempting a month-long cleanse, health-conscious older people and kids hanging out after school.
“Some people come in because it’s very healthy, other people come in because they like the stars that do come by. Then you have people who don’t know much about juicing but they are interested,” Rollocks said. “It’s just a good juice spot.”
The go-to drink is a Kiss of Life, he said. With strawberry, banana, blueberry, pineapple and pear, it’s healthy and sweet. All the juices and smoothies are customizable. Often customers will add kale to the popular Morning Rush, which is banana, peanut butter, almond milk and protein. “That one right there, everyone enjoys that,” he said.
In the South Bronx, Henry Obispo has launched a multi-pronged effort to promote healthy eating. Obispo said he didn’t realize he’d grown up in a food desert until moving back from several years in Brazil. Suddenly, the fresh fruits and vegetables were not available.
“That’s when it really hit me. As a kid I was eating vegetables at home, but now as an adult, out and about, there was nothing. I really saw the stark difference and I knew I had to do something about it,” Obispo said. “At home we had an organic way of eating. Everything was from scratch. I couldn’t really find anything appealing to me outside of my house.”
Obispo has helped introduce the Bronx Salad, to band together Bronx restaurateurs and will launch his cold-press juice bar, Born, this spring at 2500 Third Avenue.
The idea isn’t just to serve healthy food, but to normalize it.
“Health is achievable and health should be advertised in that way. It’s not an elite sort of thing, although it has been. I want to break that sort of idea and offer it to the community,” he said. “There is a connection between how you eat and where you end up in life.”
Obispo plans to develop a hydroponic garden nearby where local kids can learn about gardening.
“It has to be kind of a complete cycle. It can’t be the greens as being the final product. It has to have the people in there growing completing the cycle,” he said.