Edible Gentrifiers of Hunts Point
Are community gardens and food trucks gentrifying the Hunts Point neighborhood through food?
Hunts Point is located in the South Bronx, Bronx, New York. The neighborhood is surrounded by the Bruckner Expressway, the Bronx River, and the East River, has the ZIP code 10474, and is served by the New York City Police Department’s 41st Precinct. Hunts Point is also home to one of the largest food distribution centers in world, The Hunts Point Cooperative Market.
The neighborhood is mainly comprised of Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Dominican, and Mexicans, and has the largest Hispanic population in New York City. The neighborhood is categorized as low-income as approximately half of the neighborhood’s population lives below the federal poverty line.
Hunts Point has been labeled a food desert for quite some time. To combat this issue, food just and policy activists and advocates have been working hard to deliver nutritious food to the residents of the neighborhood through community gardens, food trucks, and local outside sources. I decided to focus on three interview subjects, Majora Carter, Stephen Ritz, and Tanya Fields. Ritz and Fields are food justice and food policy activists while Carter works to create a greener, more sustainable South Bronx.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Majora Carter, an American urban revitalization strategist and public radio host, from the South Bronx who is involved with creating green roofs and promoting a more sustainable community. Although she doesn’t work directly with food policy and food justice, she does give her opinion on issue.
Ms. Carter believes that Hunts Point and low-status communities like it are “demand deserts”, which she will go into more detail about later, and wherever there is demand, the market will fill it. The lack of demand makes it too risky for grocers to extend perishable inventory. Online delivery sources represent the best and most cost effective way to nutritional equality. Furthermore, she believes community gardens are good for cultural awareness and community building, but are insignificant sources of food by volume.
Here is her view on food trucks and community gardens gentrifying low-income neighborhoods:
Q: What do you know about the Hunts Point food desert issue? Do you have any experience working with this issue?
MC: Some of my clients over the years have included Whole Foods and FreshDirect, so we have learned a lot about how the food business works at the retail level. I would not use the popular term “food desert”, but rather the term “demand desert”. Based on our look into the industry, grocery stores are a low margin business to begin with.
MC: Expecting them to stock perishable items for which people have not demonstrated demand, is unrealistic. Businesses are here to make money. If they detect demand for healthy food, they will meet that demand. Just look at the mobile phone stores or sneaker shops that move $300 shoes with no problem. Online food retailers like FreshDirect represent a viable way around brick and mortar obstacles that can deliver on nutritional needs.
Q: How have community gardens and all-natural food trucks in the area, such as the Blk Projek, helped the neighborhood as a whole? Have they been successful? Failed attempts?
MC: Anytime people come together in community, it’s good. As an educational and culture building tool, gardens are wonderful. However, community gardens are not a meaningful source of supply. As for food trucks, I don’t know. Look at the volume of food sold in this way, the trucks net profit margin, and compare that to industry standard practice.
MC: I live in Hunts Point, and have never seen a grocery truck like that of any kind. I have participated in numerous CSA programs over the years, but again, due to lack of demand they don’t last.
Q: Do you have any advice/tips that will help better the community while combating this food justice issue?
MC: I am currently developing a local food court that will help entrepreneurs who are low on capital to enter food retail space. As we curate the types of chefs brought on, we can add healthy items to the mix to help boost demand in a low risk way. I think the key is to associate lifestyle choices with images of success.
MC: If you look at branded items like Ciroc Vodkas or shoes/clothing, one can find clues about how to trigger desire/demand en masse.
Ms. Carter brings up a great about online food services such as FreshDirect. This service is inexpensive and promises a garaunteed delivery but .
(A. Padgett personal communication, November 26, 2016)
Stephen Ritz, founder of the Green Bronx Machine, has been working with school gardens for years now and has become a beacon for healthy food in local school in the Bronx.
In an interview with the New York City Food Policy Center in April 2016, Stephen opened up about why he got into food policy and became an advocate, how he got into school gardens, and how it has changed his life as well as the lives of his students and the rest of his community.
When asked what motivated him to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate, Mr. Ritz answered “ I ballooned to over 300 pounds as an ex-athlete simply by eating what was available in the local community. My habits, which were really informed by the students, were killing me. Over the course of my 30-plus years of being an educator I am seeing kids getting sicker and fatter.
“And I am appalled at what is happening to kids. I am seeing the onset of puberty in girls coming at much younger ages than I did 30 years ago. The stark realities of my life and my students’ lives in the South Bronx prompted me to become a food policy advocate.”
When asked how he got involved with school gardens, Ritz explained his journey from being a regular high school teacher to becoming a school gardener with the help of his students. He goes into detail about his personal life telling FCP how the loss of his children required total life change, which landed him in a teaching position in one of the most dysfunctional high schools in all of New York City and ultimately resulted in him and his students unknowingly growing their first box of flowers.
After this experience he learned about vegetables and how to grow them, which he uses to help his students and his community. Thus far Ritz and his classroom have grown approximately 35,000 pounds of vegetables that they give out to the community. “The amazing thing about gardening is that a crop well planted can give you a harvest of epic proportions, and that harvest is my students, their health, their families, and their academic outcomes. While I grow vegetables, my vegetables grow students, school performance, and communities, as well as jobs,” he said.
In the interview, Ritz stated “We have moved targeted attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent by giving kids the opportunity to have hands-on experiences in school. And when 93 percent of my kids are coming to school, everybody in New York City and the nation benefits. Here, in a small elementary school, our attendance is close to 97 percent daily. In a community that’s known for unemployment and chronic underemployment we’ve partnered towards 2,200 local jobs, and my kids have farmed their way to the White House and back, that’s amazing!”
He also pointed out that he, and many of his students, have lost weight, and are now becoming “water stewards, seed stewards, and plant stewards, and they’re becoming environmentally conscious of what’s happening to them and their community.”
Ritz, Stephen. Interview with Alexina Cather. New York City Food Policy Center (2016)
Full interview can be found here: http://www.nycfoodpolicy.org/interview-stephen-ritz/
Tanya Fields, a single mother living in the South Bronx, is the founder of The Blk Projek and Arcadia’s Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. The Blk Projek is a justice and health organization that serves low-income communities bringing in locally grown food from different farmers. The main goal of this organization is to slow down and eventually eliminate food deserts in New York City.
In a short interview with Chelsea Green at the University of Vermont Food Systems Summit done in 2013, Ms. Fields opened up about how The Blk Projek began and how it’s different from other food organizations similar to hers.
When asked about the start of the Blk Projek, Ms. Fields starts by telling a bit of her backstory. “I was born and raised in Harlem, a community that I love, but that I could no longer live in due to gentrification. I moved to the South Bronx several years ago. It was an eye opener. I became much more aware of food insecurity, particularly among children.” After her child became ill, Tanya realized the importance of healthy food and how social activism played a key role in gentrifying her community. “BLK ProjeK has two intertwined missions: to make healthy food accessible, and to develop leadership skills in local youth, particularly females,” she added.
There are many other organizations like the Blk Projek so when asked how her organization differs, Ms. Fields responded by saying since they’re a small organization, they spend all their money on food instead of brochures and t-shirts simply because they do not have surplus cash to waste. The other organization have more workers and more income which allows them to splurge on things other than food such as brochures, t-shirts, etc. Ms. Fields ended the interview by saying “we invest our money in solutions that increase access and create opportunities for people to feed themselves and their families.”
Fields, Tanya. Interview with Chelsea Green. Chelsea Green Publishing (2013)
Full interview can be found here: http://www.chelseagreen.com/blogs/interview-with-a-food-systems-revolutionary-tanya-fields/
In comparison, both Ms. Fields and Mr. Ritz developed a community garden of some sort to help the community out of their food desert crisis, though going about it in different ways. Ms. Fields produced a food truck that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to the community everyday.
Mr. Ritz has taken a different approach growing gardens in classrooms. His pilot project was done by accident in his own classroom. Since then, he’s been a voice for healthy food in local schools. As a result, his students have had better attendance records, greater attention spans, and a drive to learn.
In contrast, Ms. Carter believes that community gardens don’t help low-income communities as well as many may think. Her belief is Hunts Point has not demanded healthy food as well as they should have. Businesses like Whole Foods only place their stores in areas where they have a guaranteed net profit, and they don’t believe Hunts Point will produce the profit needed to keep the business open in that area.
As far as community gardens go, there is only so much that can be produced before becoming too overused to be useful. She suggested online food retailers like FreshDirect would be a better option for getting Hunts Point out of their food desert crisis.
In my opinion, community gardens and healthy food trucks in Hunts Point are slowly but surely gentrifying the neighborhod. And although these changes may seem small, they can make a large impact on the community and surrunding communities in the future.