This week’s Community Table event highlighted a unique partnership happening in Brockton, Massachusetts. Jason Barbosa is a co-owner of family food business Vicente’s Tropical Supermarket and Mary Lynch is a dietician at Brockton Neighborhood Health Center (BNHC). They have partnered to create a unique model which combines healthcare and food access.
Vicente’s and BNHC co-located in an underserved Brockton neighborhood with the intention of providing extra value to their community in a way that neither could do alone. This area was designated as a Limited Supermarket Access area.
This collaboration includes culturally appropriate cooking classes, incentives for produce purchases, educational tours of the grocery store, “nudges” that help people understand good choices (such as recipe cards and signs which call attention to healthier choices) and community health workers trained to provide direct support across platforms.
The concept of “food as medicine” is a complicated theory with no right answer, but it’s clear that overlap between the two does exist, especially in the 2 focus areas discussed: Type 2 Diabetes and Hypertension. On measures of both prevention and management, the numbers speak for themselves: 12% of Brockton’s population presents with type 2 Diabetes, compared to 7% of the overall population of Massachusetts. And 84% of BNHC program participants improved their blood sugar scores in the first year. By co-locating, they were able to consistently reinforce these positive changes and provide more value than either could alone.
So what worked for them?
- Collaboration: It’s a joy to hear from mission-driven people who respect each other’s work. Even more so when they had to overcome silos to get there. How often does one see partnerships from 2 people with totally different backgrounds, life experiences and areas of expertise? This model can teach us how to move forward in bridging the worlds of food and healthcare.
- Inclusivity and Cultural Competency: “You can put a good supermarket in a tough neighborhood and they will embrace it, as long as you’re doing it with good intentions,” says Jason Barbosa. Vicente’s has asked the question ‘what do people want,’ and then provided it. A basic respect for other cultures goes a long way towards creating this inclusive model. They stock a wide variety of foods for the whole community, from hard-to-find produce items to frozen Guinea Pigs. “We don’t judge,” he says. Signs feature the languages of the community, and the store’s workers come from the neighborhood too, and reflect the diversity of the customers.
- Education without Judgement: “We have low health literacy in the neighborhood” says Mary Lynch. But rather than seeing that as a reason to look down on others, BNHC chose to see it as an opportunity. She and her team focus on positive nudges and providing alternatives rather than a punitive approach. To me, this philosophy says that they believe people’s feelings about food are important, and is an acknowledgement that food has meaning to us all beyond just a nutrient profile.
- Make it accessible: By locating the health center and supermarket right in the middle of a downtown area, they are making it available to the surrounding population. This shows that they gathered information before choosing a location, and identified current barriers to access. They have created a program which offers shoppers who spend 75.00 or more a ride home – an innovative model which acknowledges the potential challenge of wrestling groceries onto the bus.
- Service is not charity: People living with a low income have the same need for dignity as anyone else. With this project, Mary and Jason have communicated to their clients/customers that they are worth investing in. That they are worthy of the same access as anyone else. And it works financially–the supermarket took about 5 months to become financially stable. People know when the “solutions” we design are based in a misguided or disconnected approach, and they know when we open a store because we believe that all people deserve basic access to great food, healthcare and a community gathering place.
To learn more about this model, see the BNHC website.
Venture Development Assistant
Traci Picard is a VISTA serving as Venture Development assistant here at SEG. She comes from the world of alternative health, running a small herbal business and teaching classes like Critical Thinking for Herbalists and Asking Better Questions. Traci is also a writer pursuing a Journalism degree, a mother of 3 and a passionate fan of books and the Public Library. Born in Providence, she has lived all over but continues to return home.