Growing a Food Community in the South Bronx For Health and Business Sustainability
You know that New York City buzz people always talk about? Well, it’s alive and well in the Boogie Down—particularly in the South Bronx, where residents and community outreach programs are coming together to push back against the term “food desert” and change the perception of what food looks like in the Bronx.
Their unlikely weapon is a salad. Called The Bronx Salad and filled with healthy ingredients as diverse as the Bronx itself, it has already been added to the menu at a growing number of local restaurants and the vision is to offer it at bodegas and schools as well.
When you walk into the SoBRO office at 555 Bergen Street, the energy and passion for the community is palpable. Seated at the conference table are Henry Obispo of the United Business Cooperative (UBC), Donna Davis from SoBRO and Charmaine Ruddock of the Institute for Family Health’s Bronx REACH—three of the driving forces behind The Bronx Salad. The UBC and SoBRO were already working with restaurant owners before the creation of the Bronx Salad; Bronx Health REACH saw an opportunity to partner.
“In 2014, we partnered with SoBRO, we learned that they had a really unique effort with the UBC, where 40 restaurants were part of the cooperative and UBC was helping them be better small business owners,” says Ruddock. “Collectively we thought, ‘Here is a ready-made opportunity to work with these restaurants and provide UBC with a small grant to get a chef on board.’” There were only two requirements: at least one healthy item on the menu, and a salad.
King Phojanakong, chef of Kuma Inn and creator of The Bronx Hot Sauce, came on board in 2016 to help finesse the composition of the salad—a sweet-savory, nutrient-packed salad worthy of its namesake. Comprised of mixed greens and kale, it’s the perfect base for corn, black beans, plantain chips, black olives, mango, avocado, red pepper and red onions dressed with vinaigrette.
The Bronx Salad is currently sold at nine eateries in the South Bronx, including Mott Haven Bar & Grill, Don Poncho’s Steak House, Demly’s, and has been increasing in popularity over the last few months.
“The [participating] restaurants have sold more than 100 salads,” says Ruddock proudly. “Fine Fare [149th Street Hub] reports they do two trays of the salad each day—it’s a particularly exciting thing that’s been happening,” she says.
The campaign to improve the eating options—and habits—of Bronx residents grew out of a Robert Wood Johnson County health ranking report that devastatingly ranked the Bronx number 62 out of 62 in health outcomes and health factors in New York State. In response several Bronx-based health organizations along with the borough president’s office launched the #Not62 campaign.
“Here’s the thing,” says Ruddock. “We have two big challenges in the Bronx: One, we have the highest rate of obesity and overweight. For our children 43% and adults, almost two-thirds. The other side of that, which is also challenging, is we’re also the hungriest borough. So we are [both] the fattest and the hungriest.”
Wage disparities further this aspect of food injustice, particularly in South Bronx communities. One can’t expect the dollar menu not to be an enticing dining option if you’re living below the poverty line.
“There’s another term, ‘food swamp,’” she adds. “So, we have a lot of food outlets here. If you walk out there, you will encounter at least two places per block, but they’re not selling the healthy items. What we’re trying to do is introduce healthy food options into the community at a price point that the community can afford.”
SoBRO’s Davis says a collaborative effort made the salad possible, inspired by the surrounding community—a beautiful blend of the South Bronx’s cultural diversity.
“One thing about anyone from the Bronx is that we are very connected to our communities and being from the Bronx,” she says. “When you have something like The Bronx Salad, that’s unique; it puts a rubber stamp on all the cultural identity of what the Bronx is.”
As the South Bronx continues to change with new tenants, businesses and developers, The Bronx Salad aims to change the food landscape, for good.
“The Bronx has changed and there is so much in flux, but what we want is for businesses that have been here for so long to stay here,” says Obispo of the UBC’s involvement, which goes beyond the development of the salad. UBC works directly with business owners to create new marketing and beautification efforts and make sure the restaurants are equipped to comply with New York State sanitation regulations. The goal is to build a stronger small-business community that can withstand the test of time, even through rocking waves of gentrification.
There are plans to introduce the salad to bodegas, more eateries and schools. A recently launched initiative provides schools with a produce garden—a Bronx Salad tool kit—to present the salad to elementary-aged kids and above.
Ruddock ends the conversation with an uplifting message about all the changes in the neighborhood and addresses the fears residents have about being pushed aside.
“The South Bronx of the ’70s and ’80s—when the Bronx was burning—it was residents who recovered the South Bronx, to now make it a place that new developers want to come in,” she says. “It was Bronx folks who made the Bronx what it is in 2017, and that cannot be ignored.”
While The Bronx Salad aims to provide healthy dining options to the masses and change the perception and reality of the South Bronx food landscape, it also empowers and strengthens small businesses to withstand the test of time and to continue serving residents, both natives and new additions alike.