HARLEM—Mike Alhyani's family has owned Lenox Finest Food Market on West 116th Street for almost 30 years, but he hasn't been happy with its offerings since he took over a couple of years ago.
"The majority of the stuff we have is fattening, cakes and cookies," said Alhyani, 37, while standing a few feet from racks of potato chips and refrigeration units full of soda. "We have a huge sign that says food market, so we should have vegetables."
That's why Alhyani said he was proud to be the first of eight bodegas in Central Harlem to join forces with the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health, GrowNYC and Red Jacket Orchards to offer fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their "Fresh Bodegas" project.
As part of the program, bodegas like Alhyani's will receive a free refrigeration unit that will allow them to sell fruits and vegetables in the same way they sell products like beer and soda. The partnership with GrowNYC and Red Jacket Orchards will provide a source of fresh fruits and vegetables at a reasonable price.
"We are always concerned about the access to fresh fruits and vegetables," said Javier Lopez, director of the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health.
"This our chance to test the theory that if you put fresh fruits and vegetables within reach that people will consume more."
Obesity and lack of exercise in Central and East Harlem are major issues, according to a 2007 study from the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Six of every 10 adults in the neighborhoods are overweight or obese. For elementary school children, the figure is four in 10.
One in four adults report doing no exercise at all and six of 10 high school students say they watch three or more hours of television per day. Eight of 10 adolescents and nine of 10 adults say they eat less than the daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables.
At the same time, bodegas are more common in Harlem than elsewhere in the city, However, only 3 percent carry fresh green leafy vegetables, compared to 20 percent on the Upper East Side.
"The single biggest health issue we have in this community is access to healthy foods," said Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez.
The refrigeration unit and supply chain helps remove some of the risk for bodega owners of carrying highly perishable items like fruits and vegetables.
The produce comes from GrowNYC's Wholesale Greenmarket in the Bronx. The initiative already provides produce to 11 Brooklyn bodegas with similar poor health profiles as Harlem.
'If you look around this store, you see a lot of food options that are over-processed," said Marcel Van Ooyen, executive director of GrowNYC. "Now people will have access to the same fruit at Gristedes or Zabar's. We want to level the playing field."
With kale, apple juice, cabbage, green peppers and pears on display, customers said they were excited to see fresh vegetables in their local bodega even though there is a supermarket across the street.
"This is a bodega the neighborhood uses," said Robin Wright, 56, a Verizon worker who lives in the area. "Sometimes you just want to make a quick run."
June Green, 53, a registered nurse, said the fresh fruits and vegetables at the bodega will help her continue with the healthy eating that helped her to lose 40 pounds and eliminate her high blood pressure.
"People don't eat healthy because they don't think they can," said Green who added that the vegetables at the bodega seemed more fresh than many supermarkets in the area. "Now we have an alternative to Wise potato chips."
Outside of the store, Nourishing NYC CEO Gina Keatley and her staff handed out samples of baked kale chips and fresh carrot and apple juice using some of the items the bodega will sell as art of Food Day.
Keatley said part of the problem is that consuming fast food has become too much the norm. Learning how to cook fresh food is important, she said.
"This is not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction," she said.
Alhyani said customers often asked him to stock more fruits and vegetables and he wanted to comply, but was afraid of the financial risk.
Now that he has partners, he said he plans to add additional shelves for fresh fruits and vegetables. With Thanksgiving coming up, he said he was considering collard greens and yams.
"Before, the only fruit I sold was apples and bananas and the only vegetable I had was tomatoes and onions.
"Now that I will have more products it will get more attention," he said. "It's going to work."