The Clean Hippie

Seeking the sustainable life in New York City

The South Bronx Food & Film Expo: getting veggies into a food desert December 8, 2009

Did you know that the South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the USA? I didn’t. If I did, I might not have been so nonchalant about strolling through that neighborhood yesterday on my way to the Bronx Local Food Expo in my nice clothing.

I only got harassed once by a guy walking near me, but it was pretty typical. “Hey girl. Excuse me. Hey, don’t mean to bother you. Hey gorgeous. Hey.” You get used to that sort of thing in New York City.

Anyway, it spitted freezing rain during my trek over to The Point, a local community center holding the event. But once I got inside it was warm and dry, and the welcome table people were, well, welcoming! I ducked into the theater where they were showing a documentary that followed two young girls on their quest to get good food in the Bronx Harlem.

I had actually never heard of a “food desert” until I moved to New York. Like any suburban girl, I just assumed that people who eat badly eat badly by choice. That the poor chose french fries over apples because they didn’t care. Obviously not true.

The South Bronx is a “food desert.” What that means is that instead of walking past piles of fruit and vegetables for sale – like on my corner on the Upper West Side – you walk past piles of super-processed, unapologetically bad for you junk. As one girl put it to a government official in the documentary What’s on Your Plate, (and this is not verbatim) “My friend’s dad just had a heart attack, and he says he has to leave the Bronx Harlem to find healthy food.”

So yes, maybe it is a “choice” in the gross sense of the word. But if you make $20 thousand a year, (the median in the South Bronx) then spending $4 to get out of the Bronx and back in so you can spend more money on pricier fresh food is just not feasible.

Judging from the successful Food and Film Expo, that’s about to change. Organizations like the South Bronx Urban Farmers, the South Bronx Food Coop, the BLK ProjeK/Libertad Urban Farm, Hunts Point Alliance for Children, The NYC Strategic Alliance for Health, the New York Restoration Project, Urban Farming, For a Better Bronx, Project H.O.P.E, The Council on the Environment of NYC and so many others are all working hard to get fruit stands and farmers markets sprouting up in the heart of South Bronx. With that many pulling for the children of that neighborhood, how could it not succeed?

After that screening, everyone flooded into the main room for a fresh, locally grown, delicious vegan meal. I sat down with a nice guy named Josh Wessler who is even more passionate about food issues than I. In fact, he wants to make it his career. Go Josh! We were joined by Adam Liebowitz‘s girlfriend fiance and her brother. She informed us that the Expo was one of the most successful programs to date she had attended. Usually they attract only a handful of people. On that cold, windy, rainy day? It had to have been a hundred! The line for food stretched to the back of the center, and was still there 45 minutes later – long after Josh and I had finished our meal. So it’s clear that healthy food issues in the Bronx is something that the community is passionate about.

After that, everyone piled back into the theater for FRESH, a Food Inc-type documentary about industrial food. Ok, I haven’t actually seen Food Inc. yet (I plan to rectify that this weekend) but I don’t see how it could be any better than this movie. Besides some laugh-out loud moments, FRESH offers a optimistic view of what our future could be like, where diseased cows pumped full of antibiotics are no more, where chickens and pigs are allowed to keep their tails and beaks, where pesticides are no longer necessary. After it was done the audience burst into applause.

I don’t know about you, but even faced with the grim reality of childhood obesity, of food deserts, of pigs that are denied their “pigness,” this weekend has still granted me the ability to hope for a better future. I really respect all those people trying to improve the future of the children in the South Bronx. I know they have a hard road ahead, but I’ll support them all the way.

Update: Adam sez, “Usually we’d have a few dozen, maybe 40-50.  Based on our sign-in sheet, we had over 200 on Saturday!” He was nice enough to correct a few points above, as you may have noticed. 🙂