Addressing Food Security Throughout the Food System

Author: Zoe Singh
Image of a mural on the wall of a building that says I live in Hunts Point

FoodMap NY is a collaboration between the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and the Cornell Johnson Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, funded by a $2M grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. As part of its work on FoodMap NY, the Invest NYC SDG team is working to develop pilot projects in a range of sectors across New York State to address food insecurity. One of the areas they have been exploring is healthy food in retail environments. Through extensive primary and secondary research, convenings of an online working group, and participation in Hunts Point community events, a diverse team of public health and business experts have developed a detailed operating plan and community relationships for a healthy bodega pilot in Hunts Point, a neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. 


While a number of prior studies have shown that corner stores (bodegas) can be sources of fresh produce and other healthy foods welcomed by the community, these efforts have often fizzled out once the studies ended. The Invest NYC SDG team brought a business perspective to the problem, realizing that innovations to the supply chain were needed to enable bodegas to gain access to healthy foods at competitive prices and on terms that work for small stores. The Hunts Point Healthy Bodega Pilot is a sustainable economy initiative which aims to leverage the over 14,000 bodegas within New York City to bring low income communities healthier food options. With a bodega to grocery store ratio of 12 to 1, Hunts Point's bodega economy has the economic potential to incubate and support the growth of an alternative distribution channel supplying a complete selection of fresh and healthy foods that is scalable, profitable, and self-sustaining. 


A lack of accessible food retail options in Hunts Point has led to a heavy reliance on corner stores as a main source of groceries for community members. The incidence of diet-related chronic diseases - diabetes, obesity, hypertension - is much higher in Hunts Point compared to neighborhoods with a greater number of grocery stores, which provide access to fresh and minimally processed foods. Repurposing bodegas and corner stores as points of healthy food access is not a new idea. Numerous pilot studies have shown that both consumers and store owners welcome a healthier food selection. However, once a pilot program runs its course, bodegas typically find it difficult to continue stocking affordable fresh produce and other unprocessed foods. Chet Van Wert, a Senior Research Scholar at NYU Stern CSB, explained how the FoodMap NY team is bringing innovation to help create a sustainable bodega supply chain. Where the Hunts Point Healthy Bodega Pilot sets itself apart is through its focus on building a bodega-sized supply chain. The pilot is designed to measure the costs and address the operational issues in serving this market, providing the evidence that the team believes will spark the commercial growth of this new supply chain. 


This pilot project builds on the COVID-19 pandemic's lessons on food supply chain resilience and implements an integrated approach through involvement in all aspects of healthy food retail. This will be achieved through providing store owners training on management and merchandising, support in marketing and community outreach, and connecting suppliers and distributors with these stores. 


Putting their research into action, the team has built a carefully thought out plan to create a viable framework for their pilot program. They will team up with FRESCH, a program which seeks to promote healthy, grab-and-go snacks in Bronx bodegas through hip-hop branding that celebrates local Bronx culture. Additionally, the project will be employing local suppliers, such as Collective Fare in Brooklyn, to continue diversifying healthy grab-and-go options. The Bodega and Small Business Group (BSBG) has been a leader in the healthy corner stores movement for decades, and the FoodMap NY team has been lucky enough to join forces with them. BSBG has been instrumental in helping train store owners on matters ranging from regulatory issues to marketing options for healthy food, a program started by and for bodega owners. With the help of BSBG and Bronx Health REACH, the Hunts Point Healthy Bodega Pilot will engage with the community, community based organizations, and bodega owners to assess preferences and thoughts on healthy food choices and gauge interest in participation. Finally, NYU Steinhardt's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies will lead in-depth data analysis and collection to assess issues surrounding sales, waste, cost, and profit to continue adaptation and flexibility as the pilot delves further into the development process. 


The FoodMap NY team's efforts align with current local initiatives aiming to enhance the community's overall quality of life, including Hunts Point Forward, a partnership sponsored by the NYC Economic Development Corporation and community organization, which seeks to create a safe, healthy, and vibrant community for all Hunts Point residents. Nonprofit GrowNYC's construction of a 60,000 square foot cold storage facility in Hunts Point, called the New York State Regional Food Hub, provides another link in NYC's healthy food supply chain. All seek to provide resources to make living a healthy life more accessible and affordable for residents, fostering collaboration and partnerships amongst initiatives as well. 


"Bodega and small business owners embody entrepreneurship in the best sense of the word," Van Wert comments. "They are part of their community. If a community prospers, they prosper." The FoodMap NY team's effort is a testament to the power of collaborative, multi-faceted strategies in making a tangible impact on food security. As the team moves forward with the pilot program in Hunts Point, they set out to create an ecosystem of healthy corner store options in the face of existing structural inequalities in the food system and, once established, without the need for continuous subsidies. 


Alongside the Hunts Point Healthy Bodega Pilot, additional initiatives are currently in the works, such as exploring partnerships with local grocery chains in upstate New York. As CSB's FoodMap NY team moves forward with the pilot in Hunts Point and more, they continue to demonstrate what proactive steps towards building a sustainable and equitable food system look like, one bodega at a time. 



Zoe Singh is a rising senior undergraduate student at NYU Stern, concentrating in Sustainability and Finance.