By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — With their collection of cigarettes, junk food, lotto tickets and beer, most bodegas aren't seen as the healthiest spots in Harlem.
But a plan is in the works to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables to Central Harlem bodegas by providing a special refrigeration unit to store them.
The "Fresh Bodegas" project is looking for eight corner stores in Central Harlem in which to place the units. Sponsored by the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health, GrowNYC and Red Jacket Orchards, the units allow proprietors to sell fresh fruit from nearby farmers in the same way they sell other goods.
"I know there is no community where there is not demand for healthy, good food. We just need to make sure there is access" said GrowNYC's Greenmarket Director Michael Hurwitz.
Places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables are desperately needed in Harlem. While there are more bodegas in Harlem than elsewhere in Manhattan, they sell less fresh fruit and vegetables than in other parts of the city.
According to a 2007 study from the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, two out of three food stores in East and Central Harlem are bodegas compared to one out of three food stores on the Upper East Side.
But in Harlem, only 3 percent of bodegas carried leafy green vegetables compared to the 20 percent that do so on the Upper East Side. About 60 percent of Upper East bodegas carry low fat milk while only 30 percent do so in East and Central Harlem.
"A lot of store owners say: 'We sell what people buy,' and the community is saying: 'We buy fruits and vegetables, but they are not there,'" said Donya Williams, program development specialist for the city's Healthy Bodegas Initiatives which, since 2006, has partnered community groups with local bodegas to get the stores to carry more fresh foods.
"The store owner is taking a risk in stocking perishable items as opposed to stocking stuff that can sit on the shelf for a long time. Some store owners don't want to take the risk," added Williams.
The group is in the process of training another batch of community groups to work with their local bodegas to improve the marketing of fresh fruits and vegetables to increase local demand.
The "Fresh Bodegas" project is looking to lower dismal health statistics by providing bodega owners with a refrigeration unit to store fruit and vegetables free of charge. Nearby farmers provide the produce, but owners are only responsible for paying for the produce and fruits that they sell. The refrigeration units are funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The program has been up and running in three Bedford-Stuyvesant stores for a month with good results.
In one store, sales of fresh fruits and vegetables from the refrigerated unit started 30 minutes after the unit arrived. Two more units are coming to Bed-Stuy and the refrigerators are expected to begin arriving in Harlem in the next few months.
New Yorkers have a special relationship with their local corner store that they don't have with their local supermarket, said Williams.
"On the way to work and school they pass five bodegas, but there is only one they go to. You can still get credit at a bodega," Williams said. "A lot of these corner stores have been there for a long time."
That's why getting the stores to sell fresh fruits and vegetables is crucial to decreasing some of the health disparities in Harlem.
"We are proving that if you build it, people will come," said Hurwitz.