Where does the food in your bodega — or the corner grocer, the local minimart — come from? Who decides whether to stock tortilla chips or salad greens, and how much they’ll cost? How come it’s easier to find fresh fruits and vegetables in Brooklyn Heights than in the South Bronx? What’s the connection between the incidence of diabetes and the food market supply chain?
Last year the Brooklyn-based Center for Urban Pedagogy set out to answer these questions, and the result is Bodega Down Bronx, a 29-minute video created by CUP staff in collaboration with local high school students at New Settlement’s Bronx Helpers, a service learning organization focused on civic engagement.
Part of CUP’s Urban Investigations program, which asks basic questions about how cities work, Bodega Down Bronx delves into the politics and players of New York’s network of bodegas. Under the direction of CUP teaching artist Jonathan Bogarín, and working with CUP staff Valeria Mogilevich and Rosten Woo, and intern Sarah Nelson Wright, the student filmmakers researched issues, visited sites, storyboarded scenes, produced props and sets, and conducted interviews.
They took their video equipment and question lists to store owners, wholesalers, distributors, drivers, and customers young and old. They met with nutrition professors and diabetes counselors, and with U.S. congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who sponsored H.R. 5952, the Bodegas as Catalysts for Healthy Living Act (which would have provided grants to bodega owners to install refrigerated cases to stock more perishable produce). Along the way they teased out the cause-and-effect of food cultures, the self-reinforcing cycles (and stereotypes) that have turned some urban neighborhoods into so-called food deserts. Do bodegas stock a lot of snack food because that’s what their customers want, or do customers reach for the BBQ-flavored crisps because that’s what’s available at the bodega?
Like all CUP projects, Bodega Down Bronx is inspired by the conviction that cities and their complex systems and politics can be made legible and transparent — and more, that this transparency is vital for democratic society.