Health Food Prices: Pay Now to Save Later?

Let’s be real, the local bodega is cheaper than Whole Foods, and it’s also a lot closer. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and similar neighborhoods throughout the borough, it’s a lot easier to grab a can of coke for a dollar than it is to find fresh juice at a reasonable price. Regardless, there’s evidence that the Crown Heights community is becoming more health conscious.

Michael Adams walks into Punch Line Juice Bar on Nostrand Avenue with a loud, “I’m back!” The young men behind the line of blenders laugh and start throwing fruit into the blender for his regular juice. A former Crown Heights resident, Adams now lives in New Jersey, but comes back to get his favorites whenever he has a chance. “They’re fermented herbs. Healthy for your blood and joints and stuff like that,” he explains holding up a small bottle of brown liquid. “It’s another alternative instead of drinking alcohol. It’s fermented, so it still has a little alcohol content to it, so you still get a little buzz.”

Behind the bar, Adam Hernandez explains that many people turn to them for health purposes. “This is the tail end of the baby boomer generation. These people are getting older, they have illnesses and they prefer homeopathic remedies.” He and coworkers discuss the benefits of ginseng, wheat germ, and wheatgrass with customers on a daily basis.

Some customers are already in the know. As Crown Heights changes, the newest wave of hipster transplants is all about the vegan and vegetarian options. Though the walls of Punch Line are covered in Rastafarian décor,  a testament to the heavy presence of this vegetarian subset in the neighborhood, the clientele is reflective of the growing diversity in the neighborhood. Though gentrification can have a negative connotation, all small businesses don’t see it as a bad thing.

“We’re not afraid of gentrification whereas a lot of people are,”says Hernandez. “If anything it grows our clientele. In terms of people who haven’t grown in terms of the products they offer, they’re a little bit scared. You’re going to have to grow or you’re going to just not be a factor anymore.”

For new residents, the most talked about area is Franklin Avenue. Set apart by colorful flowers carefully planted along sidewalks and the bustle outside The Breukelen Coffee House, this year’s transformation includes The Crown Inn, Gueros, Dutch Boy Burger, and Little Zelda. But as new restaurants move into the neighborhood, they bring with them new health options and approaches to healthy food.

The Black Tree Sandwich Shop has sold specialty sandwiches out of the Crown Inn for the past six months. “Quality at a reasonable price” is the motto, according to co-owner Sandy Hall. The menu options are a bit unconventional; sandwich fillings include everything from duck to squash blossom.

Hall became familiarized with these ingredients during years of working in fine dining. But he grew tired of the cost. Now, on any given afternoon, Hall can be found prepping for the night. As he chops banana sweet peppers that will be stuffed with squash, onions, garlic, local hot peppers for crunch and served with an heirloom tomato sauce, he explains the thought behind their business model. “It’s the kind of stuff that you’d normally eat on a plate, but I’m trying to give it to people on a sandwich,” he says. Using this method, he can save the money normally spent on plating and aesthetics.

Most sandwiches hover around $10, cheaper than entrées at a typical farm to table restaurant, but perhaps still too expensive for long-time Crown Heights residents. “You get a good mix, but it’s mostly the people who have been moving in recently,” he admits. “Honestly I think it’s more of an urban thing.”  Hall explains that he thinks his food might be unfamiliar to many and believes long time residents in the neighborhood might prefer to stick to what they know.

Some options on Franklin Avenue are also a little more expensive than what’s been in the neighborhood, potentially isolating families that have been there for a longer time. But the desire to eat healthy is still there.

Mawule Jobe-Simon was the owner of a restaurant on the Crown Heights border, but it closed down this past May when the family-operated business became too much to handle. Their raw vegan menu included dishes like Curry Tempeh with Tamarind Sauce and Pineapple Mango Chutney. Jobe-Simon says price was definitely an issue for some clients. “I had a lot of people say, ‘I would like to come to your restaurant more, but I can’t afford to do that every day when I can go to the Chinese food spot with $5 and get a whole meal.’”

But there’s evidence that shifting ideas about health means people are willing to pay a bit more for healthier options. A few avenues east of Nostrand, the bodegas on Kingston have been getting a facelift. In the past year many have undergone renovations, including the products they carry.

At Superior Market and Deli, Ali Alganar says in the past year their health options have changed drastically. “We have more than 50 percent health food, all organic and natural food,” he says. Pita chips, aloe juice, granola, and hummus have joined the honey buns and sodas on the shelves. Alganar says that the demand in the neighborhood is changing, and that people are willing to pay more. “I eat healthy, I gotta have the people try to be healthy,” he says. “A lot of people like that and they bear the price. They don’t question the price.”

Efforts to change awareness in the neighborhood might be helping people see the benefits of spending a little more now. A recent billboard on a Kingston avenue bus stop sponsored by RISE, Racism Still Exists, depicts two hands holding the words “Black People” in the shape of a cheeseburger. The entire advertisement reads: “Fast food companies don’t target black people, they just don’t have any restaurants in white neighborhoods.” Following a link to their website provides information about fast food restaurants in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Adams at the Punch Line juice bar believes some health consciousness is a result of new policies in New York City aimed to bring awareness to healthy food options. “Actually the system has a lot to do with it too. Bloomberg made the law you can’t have more than a 16oz drink. You go into fast food restaurants now, they’re becoming more conscious and have a better choice of foods you can select from. That kind of contributes to it, a lot of people are being kind of forced.”

The Slow Foods Movement, Wellness in the School Initiative, and Seeds in the Middle are other initiatives that try to raise awareness about food options in New York City neighborhoods.

In Crown Heights, individuals are raising awareness through word of mouth. Jobe-Simon says, “I tell them when you get sick, you end up spending more money to be better. Take that $5, buy some vegetables, steam it. Eat the best that you can.”