Going the Extra Mile for Healthy Food

TFFJ Mentor, Khalilah Coombs, shares her experience growing up in Bed-Stuy and her hopes for transforming healthy food resources through youth engagement.

I remember frequent trips to the health food store on Willoughby and Jay, with my dad. When he would take us, he’d always get these spicy blue corn chips that I couldn’t even eat more than a bite of and flavored honey sticks for us. It was the closest thing to candy that we were going to get from him besides fruit leather (which we actually also loved). In order to get to this store from Bed-Stuy, we’d take the 43 to the 26 or walk to the Kingston-Throop stop on the C and take it to Jay St-Borough Hall. My mom couldn’t get everything we needed merely by going to Pathmark so these excursions to downtown were necessary. Especially considering my dad was vegetarian for a few years and never eats diary products or white bread.

My parents were always particular about what we consumed and used to fuel our bodies. Once, when my mom found out that I was eating school lunch to “fit in”, she had this huge fit that I didn’t completely understand at the time but more than understand now. She would meticulously choose what she packed for my lunch and choosing to give that away was a slap in the face to her and a disservice myself. Suffice it to say, I never did that again.

“We didn’t think much about the fact that we had to leave our neighborhood for something so fundamental as healthy foods.”

khalilah (1)

As children, when we traveled from Bed-Stuy to downtown, it was just the norm for us. We didn’t think much about the fact that we had to not only leave our neighborhood for something so fundamental as healthy foods, but that we had to travel through three neighborhoods in order to do so. That’s absurd.

The Not-So-Hidden Price of Gentrification

Now, there is a substantial difference; Bed-Stuy has gone through quite the transformation in the past few years. Some of my favorite brands of organic, non-GMO foods are available to me, literally, on the next corner; the store by my house has a juice/smoothie station that just came last year; there is a grocery store on Bedford and another on Fulton with organic sections that didn’t exist just a few years ago; the delivery options around here have diversified quite a bit and have become much healthier considering the only options I remember there being before were Chinese food and pizza. These are all wonderful however, it’s unsettling that the only reason these changes came about were because of the gentrification of our neighborhood.

Were we not deserving of access to fresh produce and organic foods before our neighborhood became gentrified? Why is it that my family had to travel through three neighborhoods just to get the foods that aided in maintaining our healthy lifestyle? Why is it that when my friends came over and looked in our refrigerator, ours was the healthiest they had ever seen (their words)? Why wasn’t the current state the norm before? This diversification that Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill has experienced lately has been beneficial in multiple ways. But, it shows that we didn’t matter until others moved in and made us matter.

“Were we not deserving of access to fresh produce and organic foods before our neighborhood became gentrified?”

Along with this increased accessibility to higher quality food, the price of everything has increased as well. Yes, I can now get the organic foods that I am accustomed to eating, however, I find myself frequenting places like Trader Joes due to the massive difference in prices. For instance, that grocery store on Bedford is just blocks but the prices are entirely too high for many people. The problem is that these food prices reflect the demographic of those moving in and buying these over priced apartments and condos as opposed to those that have been living here for years or even generations. There is still the struggle for convenience, affordability and access.

What’s Next: Change Through Education

“It all starts with education, knowledge and awareness. This is what we need to provide real change.”

Thankfully, I have parents who have taught me that nutrition was of the utmost importance. I learned, through their actions, how to go about maintaining a healthy diet while living with such limitation. Unfortunately, most people I grew up with were not given that knowledge and a majority of those limitations still exist in one way, shape or form. Things are seemingly better but not actually better. Again, I didn’t see it as a child so I am witness as to how crucial it is that we inform our youth about these matters and have in depth conversations about these realities.

Even as I write this, I feel that there is still so much more that I could be doing to actively improve these conditions, but it all starts with education, knowledge and awareness. This is what we need to provide for real change.

AS Nelson Mandela so simply and eloquently stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world.” We plant the mental seeds in our children through teaching and the possibilities are endless.

khalilah Khalilah has been a mentor in the TFFJ program at Unison since January 2016. An experienced cellist, she was most recently program director and teaching artist at the Brooklyn Music School, where she oversaw multiple programs and courses. Previous work includes the The Noel Pointer Foundation and AmeriCorps. She joined TFFJ because of her interest in urban agriculture and passion for working with and empowering children.

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