A Fresh Idea Sprouts in the Bronx

By Richard Yeh
South Bronx Food Cooperative founder Zena Nelson, right, helps customer Dan Zuger pack his purchases.

The idea to organize a food cooperative came to Zena Nelson one day after a class at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business.

“I was really hungry—and broke—and coming out of school,” said the 29-year-old master’s degree candidate. Her choices seemed limited. “The local supermarket in my neighborhood had not the best food. I couldn't afford to shop downtown in Manhattan. I'm also a member of the Green Party—all eight of us in the Bronx—and [previously] we had a conversation about how to do more of a public promotion effort. Somebody mentioned, ‘You should do something like a food co-op,’ and I had no idea what a food co-op was. I started to do research like any good MBA student would, and came across the [12,000-member] Park Slope Food Co-op [in Brooklyn]. They explained how their operation works. I said, that’s a really good business model.”

Then it struck her—not just those sharp, sudden hunger pangs—why not offer affordable, healthy, organic foods to an impoverished community suffering from high incidence of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure? The South Bronx Food Cooperative was born.

With draft business plan in hand, she approached Monica Dean, director of Zicklin’s Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship, which encourages social involvement. Dean suggested that she enter the 2006-2007 Baruch College and Merrill Lynch Entrepreneurship Challenge. Nelson won first place—a $5,000 prize and $15,000 in seed money. Nelson opened the South Bronx Food Cooperative in the summer of 2007. She also became a fellow at the Field Center.

For $60 a month, the co-op rents space under a basement stairwell at Los Quedamos community center at 754 Melrose Ave., between 156th and 157th Streets. The Melrose Commons neighborhood, among the poorest in the city, is experiencing something of a mini-real estate boom, but most of the hallmarks of gentrification are far from evident. For example, organic food was hard to find until the opening of the South Bronx Food Cooperative. “Our members turn to us because we offer healthy foods they can’t get elsewhere in the Bronx,” said Linda Carela, a fixture at the co-op and a Unicef official.

The prices are hard to beat. Food co-ops are community supermarkets where shoppers are also workers and owners. By donating at least three hours of work a month, they drive down costs and, therefore, prices. Items are marked up only 15 percent from wholesale. The co-op buys its staples from United Natural Foods, a national distributor of natural and organic food. Produce and perishables come from farmers and community-supported agriculture groups in New York and neighboring states.

“We had only 10 products at the beginning,” said Carl Lundgren, chair of the Bronx Greens and a founding member of the co-op. Today it offers more than 250 items, thanks to input from members, now 70 strong, and lessons learned from the city’s four other food co-ops. “We’re expanding exactly as much as consumers demand,” Carela explained. She cited the example of a food co-op that opened in East New York, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that shares similar demographics as the South Bronx. “They came into a big grant and expanded into a huge store too quickly,” she said. “They ended up with a lot of issues such as waste and had to be closed for a while.”

What also distinguishes the South Bronx project is its broad social purpose. “There are a lot of health disparities in the Bronx,” Nelson said. “In my target marketing to low-income families, I started to hear a pattern of obesity, childhood and adult diabetes, hypertension, etc.” Healthier food and nutritional instruction could help, she said. With a laugh she added, “So it made a lot of sense for me to combine my hunger and poverty with other peoples’ hunger and poverty.”

The co-op has attracted a diverse membership, from health-conscious Bronx natives to hip newcomers, “who are some of our best customers,” Carela said.

Norelis Santiago, a representative at two unions, UNITE HERE and SEIU, said she was drawn to organic food because she “wanted to live longer and be healthy. I used to shop at Whole Foods down by my job, but it’s gut-wrenching to have to pay those kinds of prices.” Smiling as she picked up items like beans and lemon pepper seasoning, which she had suggested stocking, she said, “A big part of what I love about the co-op is being together with the community. There’s something fundamentally right about requiring people to work together.”

Carela’s son Martin, the co-op’s cashier, agreed. “Before working at the co-op, I felt that we didn’t really live in the Bronx, we just slept here,” he said. “This co-op has really become the middle man between us and the community.”

Tackling the area’s health problems, Nelson will be offering breast cancer screening and workshops on diabetes and obesity. Meanwhile, she is working with her mentor, Claire Altman, executive director of ReServe Elder Service in Brooklyn, to establish a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation to provide educational services. Her biggest goals are to find a larger, street-level space and to expand the membership so that the co-op can be “a regular store” with regular hours, rather than being open only on Saturdays.

“I really did not come into grad school expecting too much out of it,” Nelson said. “I’m shocked at where I am now.”