Obtaining healthy and affordable food can be a serious health challenge for many residents of lower-income communities, particularly affecting people of color disproportionately. But a food program in Camden, NJ, is helping to address this problem one fresh fruit and vegetable at a time.
Known as the Food Bucks Rx program – a food need screening and support program started by Cooper Pediatrics, The Food Trust, and the Camden Coalition – the initiative seeks to generate a local food economy for fresh produce in order to reduce hunger and diet-related illnesses for the residents of Camden.
Partnering with the Camden community and health leaders to expand resources to train and certify local growers to sell food through the local health system, Virtua Health, The BUILD Health Challenge, and grassroots partners have helped hundreds of families facing “food insecurity.” Including establishing an integrated system where healthy and affordable foods are treated as “prescriptions” distributed to patients by their healthcare providers and can be redeemed at participating corner stores, farmers markets and supermarkets by all residents, even families who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Jose Medina opened his own business in Camden, Medina Food Market, four years ago and over the past year, has received support and resources to serve his community through the Food Bucks Rx program.
Medina shares how this program has helped his small business thrive while improving the health of his community by providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Q: How did you get involved in the Food Bucks RX program?
A: I got in touch with the Food Trust and that is how I learned about Food Bucks RX. It has been an incredible opportunity to serve my community and provide them with the types of food that they should be eating. It’s now been about a year that I’ve worked with them.
I’m thankful because other stores in my area may not have capacity to store fresh products like mine does, and this program has helped me a lot as a small business owner. It has helped me increase my sales and extend my services. I can now offer a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, smoothies too – even though I freeze the fruit, it’s all natural and I even add coconut water as well to keep it fresh. I also sell fruit salads in to-go cups.
Thanks to Food Bucks RX, I’ve noticed an increase in my sales. For example, my revenue from fruits and vegetables sales was about $800 to $900 a month and now it’s closer to $2000 to $2,500 after the program partnership started. It’s almost tripled!
Q: How does the program work?
A: When we introduced the Food Bucks RX program at my store, there was a lot of interest. Now I use incentives to keep the interest going. For example, I give away a gift card whenever someone uses their EBT card to buy their groceries. The EBT card is not redeemable for cash but only for fresh fruits and vegetables. This way, I’m incentivizing my customers to include fruits and vegetables in their groceries. By using a gift card I’m essentially giving it for free, but without insulting anyone. Instead, my customers feel excited and flattered by my generosity and make it a point to get fresher ingredients to accompany their rice and beans. That’s a creative way I’ve gotten people to pay attention to these foods and they usually keep buying them.
In poor areas like ours, people want to stretch that buck as much as possible, so when I got creative with the gift cards, people appreciated it and reacted very well because they felt excited about it like it was a treat. Many save their gift cards and use it when they run out of money, so it’s great that they at least have healthy options when they’re broke. Other customers hold on to their bucks to combine them with their EBT allowances and actually incorporate fruits and vegetables into their diets more.
Q: What are the barriers to accessing healthy food in this community?
A: In my area, the bodegas are really the only spots that offer fresh foods. We don’t have many restaurants that offer healthy foods. The most common types of restaurants we have are mainly hispanic restaurants, or fast food chains. You don’t really see options that are vegan or vegetarian. For example, there are about two to three McDonalds’ and Wendys’ within a two to three mile radius, so fast food is definitely more prevalent.
In addition, it can be logistically challenging for stores to sell fresh produce. The majority of small business owners don’t want to deal with the hassle of working with food suppliers because that requires a lot of extra work. They have to figure out when to meet them or how to set up pickups and deliveries and most of the time we’re short staffed. But I believe that when there’s a will there’s a way. If you go into it with a positive mindset, things will work out.
Q: How do you think your store has helped improve the health of your community?
A: I’m proud to say that if my community wants to eat healthy, they are able to do so by visiting my store. My customers have always told me that my service is one-of-a kind because of my dedication to them. I always work hard to figure out how to find what they need. I hustle to get fresh foods and then it’s up to them to just come in and buy them. I may not have ample space or square footage like a larger grocery store, but I have the basic items that anyone who wants to eat healthy will need.
Right now, my selection includes peaches, green apples, melon, watermelon, mangoes, mandarines, oranges, pineapples, potatoes, and much more. My top sellers are bananas, strawberries, mangoes, oranges and grapes – all of the things that I usually include in my fruit salads. The fruit salads are very popular because they’re very convenient, fast and easy. Anyone can “grab and go” and this is best for people who are always hustling, staying busy on their way to work and with things to do.
Read more about Food Bucks Rx’s impact in Camden, NJ.