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Healthy Bodegas Program Brings Fresh Produce to Humboldt Park 'Food Desert'

By Victoria Johnson | February 5, 2013 8:32am

HUMBOLDT PARK — Many Humboldt Park residents have to travel some distance just to buy a tomato or even a banana, a recent study found, so community organizers have decided to fix the problem — one bodega at a time.

The Puerto Rican Cultural Center commissioned a study by DePaul University's Stein Center in 2008 to examine what grocery store options were available to Humboldt Park residents. While Humboldt Park as a whole is not a "food desert," the study said, "nutritious food is somewhat inaccessible in certain areas of Humboldt Park."

The area in question — commonly referred to as East Humboldt Park — stretches from Western Avenue to Humboldt Boulevard and Sacramento Avenue, between Chicago Avenue and North Avenue.

 Puerto Rican Cultural Center food coordinator Abel Fernandez talks to bodega owner Angelina Claudio about how the fruit has been selling.
Puerto Rican Cultural Center food coordinator Abel Fernandez talks to bodega owner Angelina Claudio about how the fruit has been selling.
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DNAinfo/Victoria Johnson

The study identified 11 bodegas in the area, only two of which sold fresh produce.

To combat this, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center launched its Healthy Bodegas initiative in December, seeking to stock the remaining stores with fresh produce.

The owners keep the profits, and, if the produce doesn't sell, the program covers the cost and the owners lose nothing.

Reviews by bodega owners were mixed as the program entered its third month. PRCC food coordinator Abel Fernandez said the group plans to press on and expand to selling vegetables during the summer, when more supplies are readily available. Currently, the program provides only apples, oranges and bananas, which are delivered once a week.

"I think the hardest part is to make the store owners and managers trust in the program," Fernandez said. "We have to really show them that what we want to do is help the community, not to make money."

Fernandez said the program is only just beginning to cover the costs of buying the fruit wholesale to provide to the bodegas.

Some bodegas manage to sell out of the fruit and make an extra $10 or $12 dollars a week, he said. But if they don't, Fernandez has to pick up what's left and still stock the stores with fresh fruit — as well as cover their losses.

Though some haven't seen much of an impact from the program in its early days, it's clear the need is there.

At the Luna Food Mart, 1000 N. Mozart St., the aisles are stocked high with sugary sodas, chips and candy. In the back, a small kitchen features items including cheeseburgers, chicken tenders and fried shrimp.

Owner Mohammad Suleiman shrugged in his appraisal of the program, saying, "My customers don't buy too much [of the fruit]."

Suleiman said some of the fruit does sell each week, which is all Fernandez could hope for.

"It's getting better," Fernandez said. "We are able to recoup the money we are spending ... at this point, I think it's doing good."

The winter season also provides its challenges, as the warmer months will allow the program to expand its offerings beyond just fruit.

Angelina Claudio, owner of the Tres Hermanos bodega at 900 N. Francisco Ave., said business in general has been slow at her store during the winter, so she couldn't really judge the success of the program.

In the summer, Fernandez plans to begin delivering fresh vegetables grown in the PRCC greenhouse and hopes to increase the variety of fruits.

He's also working on getting a bicycle trailer to make the deliveries instead of the pickup truck he's using now.

"We have a lot of good ideas for this program," he said. "We're looking toward summer."