Photo by: Erin Brodwin

In the Mt. Eden neighborhood in the Southwest Bronx, you won’t find much in the way of fresh produce stands. Or sit-down restaurants. Or bodegas stocked with affordable, high-quality goods. Despite years of investment activity that has lifted the prospects of many here, it’s hard for low-income residents to consistently find fresh food within their means.

Mt. Eden, like many poor neighborhoods around the country, is dotted with fast food outlets and corner grocers. But that’s small comfort when you can’t afford three meals a day, or when your only options put you on the fast track to obesity, diabetes and heart disease—all of which are rampant here.

That experience underlines a point easily overlooked in conversations about poverty and healthy food access: For people living in thriving communities, food helps power their well-being in myriad ways. But for those in disadvantaged areas, their food options often compromise it.

We need a different approach, one that better recognizes what’s at work in poor neighborhoods. What if we took a page out of the playbook that for years has helped local nonprofits make their communities safer and stronger? It means stepping back from the images of leafy greens and ripe apples so we can think about food more broadly, as both economic development and as health care, as an employment engine and a centerpiece for community engagement. Can a focus on school-based food contribute to better student performance? Can a new approach to food help revive commercial corridors in ways that make streets safer? Can it raise standards of living?

It turns out that helping disadvantaged families eat better can make whole communities better places to live.

That’s the premise behind Communities for Healthy Food NYC, a pilot program launched this month in Mt. Eden in the Bronx, Cypress Hills and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and in West Harlem. Rather than focusing on one-off initiatives to put food on the table, it plugs into plans to revitalize the economic infrastructure of poor communities and makes healthy, affordable food one of their central tenets.

The program—developed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation New York City (LISC NYC) with seed funding from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund—is particularly important in the wake of cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Families that are struggling now have even fewer resources with which to shop and cook. We need new and lasting ways to help fill that gap.

The four initial target neighborhoods are all places with elevated levels of poverty and food insecurity. But, these are also neighborhoods where strong local nonprofits are shifting the economic outlook for residents, chipping away block by block at long-standing stasis and decline. Quite simply, they will now be integrating food into their long-range community development efforts.

What does that mean in practice? In Mt. Eden, for instance, early projects include a new youth market that will not only offer healthy food but also hire and train young people in how to run an urban food stand. There will be a new low-cost farmshare distribution program so that residents can purchase fresh produce within their means. There will be nutrition education and cooking classes, outreach to nearby bodegas to help expand their healthy food options and connections with food-sector job training programs in other parts of the city.

And all of that links to ongoing work in the neighborhood around affordable housing, economic development, education, health, community safety and jobs. Each of these efforts reinforces the others.

Similar plans are underway in the other three areas as well. They will see a “supermarket-style” food pantry, incubator food businesses and new community gardens that link to job training opportunities. These on the ground, efforts are led by nonprofit partners in the program—including New Settlement Apartments in Mt. Eden; Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, in Cypress Hills Brooklyn; Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn; and West Harlem Group Assistance, in Harlem. Each will respond a little bit differently based on the needs of their own residents and the community development assets they already have in place. Communities for Healthy Food NYC will provide funding and other program support to help them bring the food programs online.

The goal isn’t just to improve what appears on the dinner table. It’s about changing the long-term outlook for low-income communities. Decent food is a critical piece of that.