SOUTH BRONX — On a sunny afternoon this week, an ice cream truck jangled down Mapes Avenue, cheerfully tempting children with its sugary treats.
But when the truck passed the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, 3-year-old Jahmia Fortune barely noticed. His eyes were instead locked on a glowing green tote bag in the building's lobby.
When he reached into the bag, Jahmia pulled out a shiny red apple. His twin sister, Kamia, picked out a few blueberries.
Their mother, Laquetta Holmes, planned to toss the fruit and some yogurt into a blender to make homemade smoothies later, or maybe dice the vegetables for a fresh salad.
“My kids love these fruits and vegetables,” Holmes said, eyeing the bulging tote, “and I need to lose some weight.”
Holmes is a bag-carrying member of La Canasta, or “The Basket,” a food-buying club that the center’s executive director, Heidi Hynes, launched in January.
Each week, Hynes buys fresh fruits and vegetables at a wholesale market, then fills the tote bags with enough produce to last a family of four about a week. She delivers the bundles in a dusty white van to four neighborhood drop-off sites, where families can purchase the bags for $25 each.
Hynes designed La Canasta, she said, to address a concern she heard time and again from local families: They crave healthy food, but they are either too busy to buy it, or they are turned off by the high prices and low quality of the produce at nearby groceries.
“We want families to have access to the food they like,” Hynes said during a recent delivery run, “but just fresher and more convenient.”
Since the program began about eight weeks ago, some 50 different families have purchased bags, though only half that number buy on a regular basis. Hynes delivers to a local church, the offices of a community organizing group, a shelter for homeless families and her own center, which she has run for 14 years.
Families can choose bags with extra ingredients for Spanish dishes or diabetic-friendly bags with fewer starchy and sugary items.
This week’s totes overflowed with tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, peas, cabbage, lettuce, red peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic, avocadoes, brown rice, black beans, apples, oranges, blueberries and cilantro.
“You’re getting a bargain,” said Azucena Rodriguez, a La Canasta customer whose 5-year-old son, Marco Diaz, attends an after-school program at the Mary Mitchell Center.
Rodriguez usually roasts the vegetables or cooks them in a soup. She said she is determined to feed her son better than the children she often spots walking to school with a bag of chips in one hand and a can of soda in the other.
“This neighborhood needs to be healthier,” Rodriguez said. “The statistics aren’t good.”
In fact, it was only after a group of students at the center delved into local health statistics a few years ago that the idea for the fresh food club came about.
Annual surveys administered by the Health Department show that Bronx residents eat fewer fruits and vegetables and drink more sugary beverages per day than New Yorkers in any other borough.
The amount of Bronx residents who are overweight or obese — about 70 percent — surpasses the city average by more than 10 percent, the department has found.
When the students saw numbers like these, they decided to take action.
They passed out flyers, performed skits, and organized a neighborhood walk to encourage fitness and healthy eating.
For her part, Hynes banned "crappy foods" at the center and kicked off a campaign last year that challenged families to try a new workout or nutritional habit each week for six weeks.
But Hynes said many families who took the challenge pushed back, saying it was hard to find good food in the neighborhood.
“It’s not that the Bronx is a food desert,” said Hynes, “but the quality of produce can be so bad that it’s almost worse — you’re asking people to spend money on something that doesn’t even taste good.”
Hynes dreamed up La Canasta as a solution to that problem — a cheap and easy way for local families to stock their kitchens with tasty, healthy food.
To get the program off the ground, she used part of a $50,000 grant from Citgo to buy two new refrigerators, dozens of the green tote bags and an EBT machine so customers can pay with food stamps. Before the summer heat arrives, she plans to convert the center’s old passenger van into a refrigerated delivery truck.
Hynes has already spoken with a doctor’s group about the possibility of “prescribing” La Canasta memberships to patients whose conditions require healither diets.
Eventually, she hopes so many families will buy into the service that La Canasta can spin off into its own self-sustaining nonprofit, both feeding and employing people in the neighborhood.
“Our goal is for people to have access to healthy food,” Hynes said, en route to her final delivery of the day. “But the way we do that is equally important."
People who are interested in joining La Canasta can email email@example.com.