Community-led Healthy Eating Business Challenge Takes Off
A group of community-based organizations in Jamaica, Queens, a neighborhood with high obesity levels, has initiated a successful healthy business retail project, The Jamaica Healthy Business Challenge.
Approximately eight organizations, including Business Improvement Districts, cultural organizations, nutrition organizations and a church have been meeting regularly to identify potential businesses to take part in the Challenge, assess progress, plan the overall project and visit some of the stores. Fifteen corner stores, small groceries and restaurants have signed on to take the Challenge to date.
On August 19th, twenty-five participants from different community organizations came together to coordinate a Day of Recognition. Some participants came from healthy eating projects around the borough to learn about the Challenge and see the changes the businesses had made. Four different media outlets covered the day which consisted of a press conference in front of a bodega, four food demonstrations taking place simultaneously at bodegas and restaurants across the neighborhood and volunteers handing out leaflets to the public, to promote the businesses that are taking the challenge.
Jamaica, like the rest of New York City, has high rates of obesity and diabetes, and it is known that increasing healthy choices in retail locations and helping to market them is proven to be an effective way to combat obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Creating an environment with healthier options and signage promoting those options makes them more accessible to individuals at risk of or suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Increasing the availability of healthy options in food retail stores in any given neighborhood, in a long-term sustainable way, requires a set of local actors to be involved. Ideally, local people who live, work and purchase food items in that neighborhood should drive the process by selecting businesses to approach, designing the requested changes and providing public support to encourage businesses to make the desired changes. In the case of Jamaica, the participants were all leaders of organizations that have constituencies in the neighborhood and who have the ability to influence businesses, as well as publicly acknowledge and promote businesses that make changes. The Sutphin Blvd. Business Improvement District was particularly helpful. The director visited the business owners with whom she has strong, trusting relationships and introduced them to the Challenge.
Two public health students with strong ties to the community began working on the project in June and have strengthened the project. The project asks stores and restaurants to sign on to a challenge and asks them to meet a certain number of criteria, which include increasing availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; reducing sugary drinks and fried foods and improving the placement and promotion of healthy products or menu items.
Healthy “lunch combos” and “snack combos” have been particularly attractive to the business owners. Since the businesses perceive the requests as coming from the community, many have expressed interest in participating. Another factor in the success is that participating organizations have approached stores that they frequent, so they are seen not only as community leaders, but as customers. Businesses have begun to implement changes, but they have until mid-August to complete the Challenge. Return visits will be made to help participating businesses implement the changes and offer them attractive signage.
This work is providing healthier food options in downtown Jamaica and its outskirts. It is also serving as a positive example for organizations in Corona and Woodside that are working on similar projects as part of the Partnership for a Healthier Queens.
Three key lessons learned from the project:
Building strong relationships with business owners is key. These relationships can be built with a quick visit or two, if the visitor can really connect with the owners and convince them of the benefits of making changes. For example, we found many business owners with a strong interest in health and nutrition, even if that didn’t translate into a healthy business. Returning multiple times, always with a friendly smile and a reminder about how important we know this issue is for them, went a long way.
Second, attractive signage is valued by o small businesses that have little in the way of professional signage.
Finally, holding a big press event that set a deadline for changes to be made, showed business owners that the larger community was paying attention and hearing about their business, even if that particular business didn’t get a press interview. The press event, along with the food demonstrations and flyer distribution, also generated a lot of excitement around the project.
The current and future success of the project is attributable to the leadership of the following local organizations: Cultural Collaborative Jamaica, Community Board 12, Sutphin Blvd BID, Catholic Charities WIC Center, Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Public Health Solutions, Down to Earth Markets and First Presbyterian Church of St. Albans.
The next steps will be to leave promotional flyers at more community centers, to conduct monitoring visits to encourage businesses to fully comply with the challenge and for the local organizations to each commit to monitoring one or two of the businesses in the long term.