In Brownsville, Brooklyn and Northeast Hartford, Connecticut, healthy food options are difficult to come by. Fast food businesses and bodegas with low or no quality produce characterize the landscape. All the while, full service supermarkets are outside of realistic walking or driving distance, making procuring healthy ingredients and preparing wholesome meals a geographic, logistical, and monetary conundrum. Though 120 miles apart, the parallel food stories of Brownsville and the Northeast lead residents to the same kind of trouble: diabetes, heart disease, obesity - conditions with overwhelming prevalence, more strongly predicted by zip code than genetic predisposition.
With teams working in both of these struggling neighborhoods, Community Solutions and our partners have looked to alleviating food issues as a key strategy for positively shifting long term health outcomes. It begins - but doesn't end - with establishing access.
Since 2010, Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership has teamed up with GrowNYC, a non-profit working to ensure access to affordable, locally grown produce to all New Yorkers. Because Brownsville is considered such a high-need, food-insecure neighborhood, GrowNYC has been committed to creating more lines of access than they have in any other area throughout the city.
Together, we established two Youthmarkets, fresh produce stands employing six Brownsville youth each to sell a variety of fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall months. Each Youthmarket season averages about 45,000 pounds of quality produce sold, feeding an estimated 2,000 families.
With a marketplace operating throughout the warmer months we then asked, if bodegas are the principal sellers of what residents eat year round, what would it take to have them stock fresh food alongside their typical chips, sodas and cakes? Together with GrowNYC, we helped a handful of Brownsville's food retailers to establish new displays, procure proper refrigeration, and determine delivery schedules and product pricing. This year, four food retailers in Brownsville are participating.
Our Brownsville Partnership enlists the Youthmarkets team to host healthy cooking demonstrations at local parks, senior centers, community celebrations and in front of GrowNYC’s stocked food retailers on market off days. These demonstrations are interactive, allowing area residents to see and taste how fresh fruits and vegetables can be incorporated into deliciously wholesome dishes. The team also hands out healthy recipe cards for residents to take home.
In Hartford, like in Brownsville, our team aims to put systems in place that support more than food access. We work towards permanently embedding healthy food knowledge in these communities that can be passed on to friends and family for years to come.
In 2012 the Hartford Health Equity Index ranked the Northeast neighborhood worst in health equity for potential years of life lost. While changing the approach to medical care in this neighborhood is one means by which our local team has planned to help this vulnerable population, lack of access to healthy food and nutrition information is a fundamental concern that must be addressed to see sustainable change in health outcomes.
In the Northeast our approach to access and education centers around plans to reactivate the Northeast neighborhood’s historic Swift Factory and surrounding campus into a community food hub. We’re transforming the 65,000 square foot factory into a commercial kitchen, food business incubator with nutrition and cooking classes linked to local schools, and training in culinary arts and food service.
Beyond technical training, the factory will act as a processing hub for a network of urban farm stands and community farms. We’re in the early stages of developing this network as neighborhood youth and various partners come together to activate vacant lots around the Northeast. Once enough lots have been transformed into small urban farming and outdoor community spaces these sites will also be used for produce distribution and healthy living demonstrations.
One of our partners, Hartford Food Systems, has already been invited to use Swift’s surrounding campus as farming ground and are now in their fifth consecutive growing season. Their produce supplies many areas of Hartford, including markets near the Northeast neighborhood and their work will expand as the Swift site and urban farm networks are established. We’re also teaming up with Billings Forge Community Works to bring their successful food-based entrepreneurial training model to life at the Swift site.
In both Brownsville and Northeast Hartford, we are working to ensure that residents know where and what they can find in their neighborhood in terms of food options and that they have a clear understanding of what healthy meal preparation entails. This approach is comprehensive, positively affecting other systemic concerns. Brownsville Youthmarkets create summer jobs for youth and are introducing positive shifts to the local business infrastructure. And in Northeast Hartford, we expect the fully renovated Swift factory to employ about 250 local residents and provide job and entrepreneurial training for entrance into local food businesses.