The Healthy Bodegas Initiative: An Interview With Donya Williams

Posted by Kerry Trueman, Eating Liberally

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Healthy Bodegas program seeks to make healthier food choices available in communities where fresh produce, whole grains, and low fat dairy products can be hard (or impossible) to find. Donya Williams, Program Coordinator for the Healthy Bodegas initiative, chatted with Kerry Trueman about the twin challenges of encouraging shopkeepers to stock more wholesome foods, and enticing customers to buy them. KT: What was the genesis of the Healthy Bodegas initiative? DW: There was some research done at the district public health offices, looking at food retail establishments in Harlem and Brooklyn. And through this research, they found that bodegas were the most common food stores in these neighborhoods. So, based on that, they did a pilot program trying to get bodegas to increase their stock of low-fat milk and fresh produce, which would provide a lot more people with access to healthy food.


KT: Some people might say, "Healthy bodega--isn't that an oxymoron?" How do you change that perception? DW: Well, you know, one step at a time; it's definitely the chicken and the egg, so, as hard as you work with the store owners, you work equally as hard with the community. There are some stores that sell fruits and vegetables, so if you've got a store that offers good quality produce, please patronize them--please buy it. The more you buy it, the more they'll stock it. We interviewed a bodega owner in the Bronx, who initially only had apples and bananas, but based on our outreach coordinator going there and building a relationship with that store owner, they were like, OK, maybe we'll try something else, and then they got strawberries. And once they had bananas, apples, and strawberries, people would ask for mangos. 

KT: Most of the food that's distributed to the bodegas now is the prepackaged convenience foods, the chips, the cookies. Do those distributors even have the infrastructure or the resources or the inclination to handle more perishable things? DW: You have to meet the stores where they're at. So to think that these small corner stores are going to look like mini Whole Foods is just not realistic. And yes, they do have a lot of prepackaged foods and non-perishables, so one thing we do is, they have canned goods--we ask them to stock low-sodium canned goods. They have canned fruits, we ask them to stock canned fruits without sugar. These are things that help. If I'm going to get a quick snack, maybe I can get pretzels, maybe I can get baked chips, nuts without salt. Right now, unfortunately, there's not much choice. Our idea is to expand the choices so that people can pick the healthier option. I'm not saying it's the healthiest, just healthier; it's baby steps. Change is incremental. You have to start somewhere. The store owners are willing to make changes, but they need help.

KT: A lot of bodegas put up posters promoting cold cuts, beer, soda, or cigarettes. Do you find that the bodega owners are willing to display promotional materials encouraging folks to make these healthier choices? DW: Yes, definitely. We haven't had many problems getting them to display our materials. The stores that are unwilling to display our posters are the ones that don't have any advertising at all, they don't want anything in their windows. That's fine, we respect that. But for any other store, we've gone and said "can we put up our poster?" and they say fine, and we put it up ourselves, we come with the tape, and we put it up. And when we come back much later, it's still there--it's faded, but it's there. We haven't faced a lot of resistance when it comes to putting up marketing materials.  KT: That's great--so they're receptive? DW: They are receptive. Which is why we changed our implementation plan, we changed the model, because our initial program, our first campaign, Moooove to 1% Milk, and also our Move to Fruits and Vegetables campaign, worked with a large, large number of stores--with milk, we worked with over a thousand stores, fruits and vegetables was about 500. With those stores, we visited them once to do the baseline survey, do the observation, the educational component, and then we'd come back a month later to follow up. And there were a lot of stores who wanted to increase their stock of 1 % milk, wanted to get better quality fruits and vegetables, but they had questions along the way, or they needed help. But by the time we came back a month later, they needed to be reminded. So, because of that, we changed our model, the campaign we're working on now, we're working with only 60 stores, right now it's 30 in Brooklyn and 30 in the Bronx. We're working with the same 60 stores for a six-month period.

KT: So it's like a more focused, targeted approach, so that you can hope to have a better end result, more consistent? DW: Yes, and we are definitely seeing more changes in these stores. We have a lot of stores that are more willing to take a chance and stock low-salt or no salt added canned goods, and 100% juice, and they're selling fairly well. Customers are happy to see that, you know, especially people who have high blood pressure, or diabetics, who say, "I know what I need to eat, but when I go to the store, I can't find it." Those are some of the changes that we're seeing right now and we've got about two weeks left in that first six-month cycle, so we're really excited to see the results. I think people will be happy to see that stores are making some changes. 

KT: What are the some of the biggest obstacles you face with the Healthy Bodegas campaign? DW: Dealing with supply and demand, it's hard to find that perfect balance. There have been times when we've said to a store owner, "please get the low fat milk," and they get it, and it doesn't sell, and they say, "I'm never doing that again." So that's the hardest part, you need to do a lot of outreach and we are a very small staff. 

KT: So you rely on volunteers to help you do this work? DW: We need volunteers, yes. We encourage everyone to become unofficial members of the Healthy Bodegas initiative and there are opportunities to volunteer with us. One of the things that we note is that what gets measured, gets done--so a lot of the work that we do involves evaluations and doing the research, and that's the part that really takes a lot of staff. One of the things that we're working on now is attempting to determine how many people are being affected by our campaigns, so we need volunteers to go to stores to assess how many people are shopping at these stores. We also need volunteers to help conduct consumer exit surveys.


If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, contact Donya Williams at