C-Town on Wethersfield Street in Hartford, Conn. C-Town accepts SNAP food stamps. Photo by Bailey Wright
City Markets Look to Fill the Gap
By Kevin Bostiga
C-Town market on Hartford’s Wethersfield Avenue is unassuming at first glance – just a simple, white brick building with a red and white awning. Graffiti is visible just below the ledge of a building that towers over the market. An old brick building sits behind the lot, vines creeping up all sides.
Step through the sliding doors, however, and anything that could be interpreted as bleak disappears. Merengue music resonates throughout the store, creating a joyful, upbeat atmosphere.
Then there is the feast for the eyes. Mangoes, waxed yucca, plantain, papaya and southern yams share the shelves with bananas and onions. Calabaza sits next to cabbage and collard greens. Some of these vegetables and fruits may not be common in suburban Connecticut supermarkets, but in the city’s South End, they are staple produce for the predominantly Latino residents in the neighborhood.
On the grocery shelves are towers of other local favorites: Café Bustelo Espresso, varieties of Goya beans, Rico long grain rice, canned pimiento and anchovies. The smell of freshly prepared pollo guisado, a Puerto Rican chicken stew, and pernil, a Puerto Rican-influenced marinated pork shoulder, fill the air.
“We try to provide the highest quality, and lowest costs we can,” store manager Jeffrey Perez said. “We know the market where we’re at. Cost wise, we have to be more efficient.”
In a city with a high poverty rate, a scarcity of fresh, nutritious food and no major supermarket in the core area, C-Town and other small, neighborhood markets like it, are striving to fill Hartford’s dietary void. They are important resources for neighborhood families, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t consider them when labeling parts of Hartford a food desert – places where fresh, affordable food is in short supply even if processed and junk food is readily available. The USDA counts only large grocery stores, supercenters and supermarkets. The only large stores in Hartford – Stop and Shop and Walmart Superstore – are near the West Hartford border, miles away from many customers. In a city where the proportion of households without cars is four times the national average, a good neighborhood market can make a real difference.
There are three independently owned and operated C-Towns in the city: Perez’s at 165 Wethersfield Ave. in the South Green neighborhood, one at 1744 Park St. in Parkville, owned by the Diaz family; and another at 394 New Britain Ave. in the Behind The Rocks neighborhood, owned by the Sapiens.
There also are two independently owned Bravo markets in Hartford. They are located at 1291 Albany Ave. in Upper Albany and 685 Maple Ave. in Barry Square. Carla’s Supermarket at 662 Blue Hills Ave., and Carlo’s at 198 Farmington Ave., are known for the selection of Caribbean food. The Save-a-Lot discount grocery chain has two small stores in Hartford at 1250 Park St. and 1888 Main St.
Perez, 28, said that concerns about his weight and that of his family members fueled his dedication to providing healthy food options at his C-Town. He makes it simple for customers to choose fresh over processed by positioning produce just a few feet from the door. He also offers SNAP Up!, an incentive offered through Hartford Food System and the national non-profit Wholesome Wave, funded by a USDA grant. The program allows low-income residents to stretch their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits if they buy fruit and vegetables. In 2016, Perez won a Community Food Security Award from the City of Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy for these efforts.
“Jeffrey is incredibly dedicated to this work,” Meg Hourigan , policy analyst for Hartford Food System, said.
Perez’s C-Town also works with SNAP4CT, a USDA funded educational program managed by the University of Connecticut Center for Public Health and Health Policy, to bring healthy prepared foods to the store for customers to taste and to provide demonstrations to show customers how to prepare the food themselves.
Perez and his employees also cook up a variety of daily offerings. At lunch, for example, Perez or one of his family members or coworkers serve up full, hearty meals of rice, beans and meat for just $5.
Perez said he and his co-workers also personally inspect produce and meats that are delivered four to five times a day. They reject food it if it’s not fresh enough.
“We just don’t like bad customer feedback,” Perez said.
His work schedule is evidence of his dedication. He’s at
the store by 7 a.m., with doors opening a half hour
later. Many days he doesn’t leave the store until it
closes at 8 p.m. He earned a bachelor’s degree in
accounting from the University of Connecticut in 2011,
while also running the store.
Another long-time Hartford business dedicated to
serving the community is La Estrella bakery, where the
owner said she focuses on keeping prices low and
trying to help people who aren’t rich in cash not go
hungry. There’s plenty of hearty homemade bread at La
Estrella that won’t break the bank to purchase.
La Estrella, owned by Maria Nascimento, has been on
Park Street for 37 of its 45 years in business.
Nascimento, who emigrated from Cuba in the exodus
after Fidel Castro took power, said the neighborhood
market’s value to an area is as much about the people
as it is about profit.
“It puts the community together,” Nascimento said. “Like on Sunday morning, you go to Mass, you buy bread. It’s just a given.”
Katie Martin, an assistant professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Saint Joseph, said that in a city where so many residents try to make financial ends meet on a low income, offering affordable food is key.
“It’s not that we don’t have enough food in America,” she said. “It’s that many people can’t afford it.”
Perez is dedicated to offering good food at a good price. SNAP Up! is one program that helps with this effort. The program gives shoppers a $5 produce credit for future purchases if they use their SNAP benefits to buy fruits and vegetables. The initiative ran on a trial basis last year for four months at both Perez’s C-Town and the Bravo market on Albany Avenue. More than $20,000 worth of vouchers were redeemed in that time. It was renewed at the Wethersfield Avenue C-Town, where it was very successful. Now, Perez said, his store redeems about 450 vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables every week, increasing his produce sales eight to ten percent.
Hourigan credits SNAP UP!’s success to Perez.
“The C-Town on Wethersfield [Ave.] was a huge success because Jeffrey was already very committed to the idea that he wanted to be a force of healthy food for the community, and he was very vocal about that with us,” she said.
The work Perez and his family do for the community would not be possible had it not been for his godfather seizing an opportunity. Perez’s father and godfather moved from the Dominican Republic, where they worked in small grocery stores, some 30 years ago. In New York City they opened up bodegas and worked seven days a week for a decade to ensure their business’s success. Perez’s godfather, Wilson Urena, who is his father’s cousin, was married to the daughter of the previous owner of the Wethersfield Avenue C-Town. When that C-Town owner moved on in 2006, Perez’s father and godfather decided the time was right to move their family Hartford to operate the store.
C-Town markets are supplied in part by Krasdale Foods, a grocery wholesaler in White Plains, New York. Krasdale specializes in supplying ethnic and specialty foods to independent retailers, including Bravo and C-Town markets. An array of Krasdale products in signature bright yellow packaging fills C-Town’s shelves.
Running the business with his father, godfather, siblings and cousin, Perez said the family feel is what sets his business apart. He even married into another C-Town family. Perez said he met his wife at a party and later discovered her family runs a C-Town in East Hartford.
“We make friends with most of our customers, so we know many of them by name,” Perez said, adding that he’s always happy to see customers return again and again. “All our customers come in, we’re always joking around, getting to know them, getting to know their day, what’s going on with their family, their friends, their job situation.”
Visit, and it’s immediately apparent Perez walks the walk. He greets friends with a handshake, or a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek. Sporting a C-Town hat, Perez is constantly occupied. He takes on everything from receiving deliveries, to serving customers, not to mention attending to money matters.
“It’s just the passion,” Perez said. “You see us all right now. We can walk through the deli, you’ll see both of my cousins there working, my godfather at the front end of the store. All of our employees, we treat all of them as family.”
Kevin Bostiga is a 2017 journalism graduate of the University of Connecticut
By William Heyne
“It’s not that we don’t have enough food in America. It’s that many people can’t afford it.”
– Katie Martin
Hartford’s Green Thumbs, Look to Make the ‘Desert’ Bloom
Tristan, a seventh grader at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School, helps move dirt in order to repair the side of a raised bed. Photo by Bailey Wright
By Claire Galvin and Michelle Kalupski
On a small patch of Hartford earth tucked behind a mega church and nearly hidden from view from the street, Cecil Walker tends to crops. For 16 years, he’s grown scallions, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables hard by a cracked parking lot littered with cups, wrappers and even old office chairs and mattresses. He gives the food away to his family and friends.
In another part of the city, a group of eager, giggling first graders enter a greenhouse single file. They walk around the crowded room, pointing at plants and asking their teachers: “What are those things?” Some of the children proclaim their knowledge: “That’s basil.” This is a normal day at Mary M. Hooker Magnet School.
In Hartford, a city with more than 125,000 residents and where fresh food is difficult to find, having extra room and resources for gardens may seem like a stretch. However, with more than 30 gardens flourishing in schools, side streets, backyards and vacant lots, the appreciation for fresh and local food in the city is increasing.
While gardens have sprouted tomatoes and peppers in tiny backyards and on patios and ledges for decades, Hartford officials in 2016 codified encouragement for more city gardening. The Planning and Zoning Commission established standards for community gardens and urban farming.
Sara Bronin, planning and zoning commission chairwoman, said the commission vote to establish the regulation was unanimous and reaction positive. In fact, the committee won a Community Food Security Award in March because of the changes. Bronin said she collaborated with the Hartford Food Policy Advisory Commission to draw up the new regulations.
“The goal of the Community Food Security Awards is to celebrate people who are making Hartford a more food secure city. Community food security means that all people in a community have reliable and adequate access to safe, healthy and culturally appropriate food,” said Meg Hourigan, a policy analyst at the Hartford Food System.
The new code allows gardens anywhere in the city. Certain conditions such as having safe soil, access to water and using only organic chemicals are mandated. No water or chemical drainage may leak onto surrounding properties.
The KNOX Program coordinates most community gardens in Hartford. KNOX is a non-profit organization that oversees community gardens, urban farms, cleanups and other beautification projects throughout Hartford.
Executive Director Ron Pitz said once a space is identified as a potential garden, KNOX reaches out to the neighborhood to determine whether gardeners are interested in farming there.
“A community garden is not like a store,” Pitz said. “It’s not like, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ If there are no farmers or gardeners interested, it’s not worth starting the garden.”
Once about 20 gardeners are interested, KNOX tests the
soil to make sure heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic
and lead are at acceptable levels. Too-high levels can be toxic
if ingested via vegetables grown in such soil.
Gardeners pay $30 or $40 for the plots, depending on their income
level. Garden sizes range from 300 square feet to 625 square feet.
KNOX provides gardeners with seeds and gardening tips. Pitz said
what the gardeners grow is up to them. Some grow fruits and
vegetables, while some prefer flowers.
“We teach them, lend them the tools, give them the seeds and water,
but they do the work,” Pitz said.
The program currently oversees more than 400 families at 22 gardens
on 30 acres. Two more gardens are being developed.
One urban farmer, Salvador Casales, was already harvesting cilantro in the middle of April, thanks to KNOX’s greenhouses. Pitz estimates about $10,000 to $15,000 of fresh produce is grown annually.
The immigrant and refugee community is among those who appreciate the access to fresh foods. When immigrants from Myanmar resettled in Hartford, for example, they missed their rural lifestyles, Pitz said.
“They needed the dirt,” he said. “All our plots were full, but we tilled up the lawn on the KNOX property so they could grow their produce. Every square inch is used.”
As community gardens flourish in Hartford, many who work or live in the city strive to instill a love for gardening among children.
Eleven of the city’s public schools use gardens for educational purposes. Preschool through high school students learn in the gardens as part of their school work, said Alice Gold, a member of the Hartford School Garden Council. Five other schools use gardens in after school and enrichment programs.
The council supports creating more edible school gardens in the city and is working toward the goal of a garden at every school, Melissa Pavick, council facilitator, said.
“Gardening is something that can be incorporated into any school and any curriculum,” Pavick said. “We think it is very important to connect the kids to gardens.”
While New England winters keep students out of some school gardens in December, January, February, and sometimes March, schools such as the Mary M. Hooker Magnet School at 440 Broadview Terrace have a greenhouse that allows for year-round gardening.
Mary Hooker is a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade environmental magnet school with 620 pupils. The greenhouse is 600 square feet, about the size of a small bedroom. The school also hosts an outdoor community garden with 26 raised beds. Potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, carrots and other food grows there, Travis Clark, a teacher who also works year-round tending the school garden, said.
Besides Clark’s work, families also work their own gardens and students who are in summer school help.
During the school year, the garden is incorporated into daily lessons for just about every subject and grade level. For example, in a math class students learning about volume and area measured the raised beds and calculated the amount of dirt needed to fill them, Clark said.
The youngest children seem to enjoy the garden most.
“At that age they don’t care about getting dirty,” Clark said. “Getting older they worry about their shoes and don’t want to get their hands dirty.”
One first grader on a recent day said he loves getting dirty in the middle of the school day. He said he even enjoyed pulling weeds and loved planting tomatoes because they are his favorite vegetable.
Although the school garden’s main purpose is education, food production is a bonus. While not enough food is produced for it to be given to all students and their families, it is sometimes given to people in the community and staff, or used for classroom snacks.
Kale chips are one common snack, Clark said. The children pick the kale and bring it inside to wash and prepare for baking. They toss some olive oil and spices on it for added flavor. The kale is then baked until crispy, Clark said.
While the popularity of school and community gardening is growing in the city, another program called Little City Sprouts is working to hook even younger children on gardening. Little City Sprouts began in April 2015 to educate preschoolers about food and eating healthy, according to Tilly Story, a Little City Sprouts coordinator. Healthy eating habits are more likely to be life-long if learned at a young age, Story said.
“We want them to make the connection that food is grown in the ground and doesn’t just appear in the grocery store,” Story said.
This program started as a reaction to a 2012 study called “Think Differently” completed by the University of Connecticut Center for Public Health and Health Policy. The study monitored weight among 1,120 Hartford preschoolers and found “37 percent of the children were classified as overweight or obese, with 17 percent classified as overweight and 20 percent as obese.”
The study was repeated in May 2016 and the number had dropped to 32 percent, Ann Ferris, director of UConn’s Center for Public Health and Health Policy, said.
“It is twice as bad as it should be, but it is not getting worse,” she said.
With obesity a major contributing factor to diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, Little City Sprouts aims to promote healthier lifestyles by teaching about good nutrition and gardening through games, hands on activities and books.
For example, in November children in the program made vegetable wraps. The children used Greek yogurt as a base for their healthy homemade dressing, then customized their wraps with a variety of vegetables, Story said.
Although children are notoriously picky about eating vegetables, Story said the more children are involved in choosing, growing or selecting food, the more likely they are to eat it. Program leaders hope the children share their preferences with their parents to help influence food purchases. Since January, the program has reached more than 250 pupils in 18 classrooms at six preschools.
Besides education, school and community gardens also help the city’s diverse ethnic groups retain their cultural heritages. Farm markets stocked with fruits and vegetables aimed at American palates did not always fill this need.
“There were farmers’ markets in Hartford that are located right in the middle of ethnic neighborhoods. But locals weren’t shopping there, only people from the suburbs,” Pitz said.
The community gardeners fill their plots with produce familiar to Caribbean, Latino, African-American and Asian tastes. “These farmers grow their cilantro, Scotch bonnet peppers, pigeon peas, tomatillos and callaloo and sell them at local farmer’s markets,” Pitz said. “That’s the true goal of a community garden and a farmer’s market.”
Claire Galvin and Michelle Kalupski are 2017 University of Connecticut graduates with majors in journalism and communication.
Pedro Lopez waters his plants in one of KNOX community greenhouses.
Photo by Bailey Wright