How ReBORN FARMS Is Revolutionizing Food Access in the South Bronx — And Soon, Around the World
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Bronx, Henry Obispo is a true global citizen — he studied abroad in Spain and later lived in Cuba. But it was in Brazil a decade ago, where he was studying entrepreneurship through a United Nations program and SEBRAE in Rio de Janeiro, that he determined he wanted to be a social entrepreneur, someone who used business to do good.
He noted comparisons between the favelas where he’d lived in Rio and parts of the South Bronx, his home. “I saw these two very different worlds that shared a very similar reality when it came to people and people who were disadvantaged,” he says. “A lot of them looked like me.” His earliest memories involve food — being in the backyard of his family’s home in the Dominican Republic, engaging with plants, cooking and being creative in the kitchen, and being “in wonderment of nature,” he recalls. “It’s something that’s never left me.”
The South Bronx is located across the Harlem River from Manhattan. Districts 1 and 2 in the South Bronx are home to 140,000 people, and are among the most food insecure areas in New York City. The South Bronx is home to one of the poorest congressional districts in the U.S. According to the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it’s recommended that Americans eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day—yet only 4% of South Bronx residents meet this standard, and 17% consume no fruits or vegetables in a day. In addition, about half of South Bronx residents rely on SNAP to get the sustenance they need to live. Ironically, the South Bronx is also home to the largest food distribution center in the world, the Hunts Point Cooperative Market — every year, more than 210 million packages of produce pass through the market, sourced from 49 states and 55 countries before being distributed across the city. “Even though we house the largest produce market in the world, we still don’t get that produce,” Obispo says. “It bypasses the South Bronx.”
Obispo came back to America and went to work on talking to people in the community and finding solutions- and community-based approaches to solving food insecurity issues in the South Bronx. He obtained a grant from the USDA and proceeded to meet with anyone who would talk to him in the Bronx in an attempt to procure stakeholders. Obispo left no stone unturned, speaking with clergy, nonprofits, activists, organizers, elected officials, and cultural institutions. “People in the neighborhood had been working for generations towards solutions, but to bring things together — that was very different,” he recalls. He started launching initiates by engaging locally and partnering with the institutions who had come to know him.
His first initiative was helping immigrant-owned, mom-and-pop restaurants in 2014. “They didn’t feel like anyone had their back,” Obispo says. The United Business Cooperative (UBC), of which Obispo was appointed President, helped these restaurants with collective purchasing, revolutionizing the concept of small restaurants by leveraging purchasing power on behalf of members to negotiate supplier contracts that would yield the greatest savings without sacrificing quality or standards. In 2015, with funding from winning the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC)’s Thrive Competition, the UBC’s operations grew, teaching business owners in the South Bronx how to implement and use POS systems or how to capture more funds for their businesses.
From there, Obispo launched healthy food initiatives. Born Juice was born, a social enterprise that would pop up in local institutions to create an experience where there was nutritious food available for folks in the community, coupled with access and education. Obispo’s community- and education-focused approach to social entrepreneurship meant that instead of building something and hoping people would show up and buy it, he used Born Juice to create educational, healthy food experiences in places where the community already existed, literally meeting people where they were.
This ecological plant-based and zero-waste social enterprise also led to the creation of the Bronx Salad — a meal filled with healthy ingredients grown locally, as diverse as the Bronx itself, that would be served at dozens of local restaurants. “Our aim was to create a positive way of engagement for people to feel pride from where they’re from. People in the Bronx are very proud,” Obispo says. “But we wanted them to associate that pride with health, with food, with a way forward that was healthy for the community.” Obispo launched a small hydroponic farm and started growing food specifically for the Bronx Salad, engaging with kids from the neighborhood and public housing, to show how to grow food. Restaurants were incentivized to carry the salad with the promise of having the produce locally sourced and provided to them.
All of this led to the creation of Obispo’s ReBORN FARMS, an ag-tech company focused on revolutionizing local food systems, centering food sovereignty, economic equity, and climate-forward as its mission and purpose. “I’m the proudest of being able to translate the challenges on the ground that showcase the ReBORN FARMS model being the solution — hope and promise of a new way forward that centers people and community,” Obispo says. “This is important to me, as it is the reason why so many people have gravitated to our mission and are actively helping us achieve it, as it is through community that I have always found the way forward.”
Obispo applied for the inaugural class of the City Fellowship at Company Ventures, a 6-month program offered in partnership with NYCEDC with sponsorship support from Amazon to leverage VC networks in support of historically marginalized entrepreneurs who are solving entrenched challenges for New Yorkers. He was accepted. “The City Fellowship really feels like a family; the other fellows are people I look up to on so many levels and they all have been so incredibly generous with me. There’s a trade of resources, knowhow and an intentional way of engagement among the fellows,” he says. “Being accepted into the inaugural cohort has been a blessing and being able to work with the Company Ventures team has really helped me navigate this founder experience. I feel incredibly aligned knowing that the climate and food access solutions and principles of the ReBORN FARMS decentralized model are also embedded in the thoughtful development and creation of the fellowship program.”
The fellowship has allowed Obispo to hone in on the vast experience on the ground through which ReBORN FARMS was formed. ReBORN FARMS has been able to expand its story and reach, and the fellowship’s curriculum and hands-on development has allowed ReBORN FARMS to mature as an organization, Obispo says.
And Obispo’s journey is not over yet. On September 23, Obispo pitched his vision for ReBORN FARMS and won a prestigious award from the Basque Culinary Center (BCC), a pioneering Spanish academic institution providing higher education, research, innovation and promotion of gastronomy and food. Impact Hub Metro NY, a resource hub for sustainable businesses, helped connect Obispo to the BCC. Now, Obispo will represent the Bronx, New York, and the United States in the second iteration of “Culinary Action! On the Road,” an international entrepreneurship program for foodtech startups. After delivering the winning pitch in New York, Obispo will be joined in Basque Country for a month with the competition’s other winners from Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Tel Aviv.
“This is a culmination of years of community work around food justice, sustainability, social entrepreneurship, all with food as the central figure and more importantly, as the actual tool to develop a more equitable and just world, for the planet and its inhabitants,” Obispo says. “Personally, it is an institution I have long admired because of the way in which food is respected and dignified, as an institution the BCC’s mission has elevated the art of gastronomy and expanded on its possibilities. It truly is a dream come true for me to be able to collaborate and work with incredible people that have dedicated their lives to this most incredible craft.”
For ReBORN FARMS, a partnership with the BCC means a chance to further develop and solidify its mission that is directed at the democratization of systems, to be able to create that extension between the Bronx and similar places where gastronomy, systems, circularity and equity are often never referenced nor have ever had real participation, and to prove the replicability of ReBORN FARMS’ model. “It’s important in our quest to showcase the replicability of our decentralized model that addresses hyper-local on a global scale, for communities in any country to be able to engage in food sovereignty as climate change impacts supply chains and topographies,” Obispo says. “To be able to incubate ReBORN FARMS in the BCC is to be able to democratize systems, as it is these systems that will be on the ground in often disinvested populations. The research and development component of the BCC are ways that we seek to engage deeper, as we look to develop those components internally, but also as we look to develop innovative product line and crop solutions for our urban reality.”
Congrats to Henry and ReBORN FARMS! We can’t wait to see what comes next for you.