Setting Table in the South Bronx

By Lenina Mortimer

LIZZETTE BONFANTE GONZALEZ, 23, is moved to tears when she discusses the importance of food education in the inner city. “My purpose is to share fairness and goodness,” she says. “For me it’s all about food justice and food education, and if there’s Community Supported agriculture or a farmer’s market in your community it should be supported.”

Lizzette Bonfante Gonzalez, at the St. Paul Evangelical Church food distribution site in the Parkchester neighborhood of the South Bronx.

Lizzette Bonfante Gonzalez, at the
St. Paul Evangelical Church food distribution site in the Parkchester
neighborhood of the South Bronx.

It is with this optimism that the Brooklyn College senior began working with a local organization two years ago to bring affordable organic foods to her Parkchester neighborhood in the South Bronx.

“There are plenty of farmers’ markets in Manhattan but there are hardly any organic foods available in the Bronx, and I feel like we need to have this in every community,” says Gonzalez, who became a volunteer with the Parkchester Community Supported Agriculture program as part of her coursework at Brooklyn College.

Members subscribe to the program, paying upfront for a share of a farm’s crops during the 23-week growing season from June to November.

Parkchester CSA works with the W. Rogowski family farm in upstate New York. Members pay $435 for seasonal vegetables distributed weekly at a local church. Each delivery contains seven to 10 kinds of vegetables, which is enough to feed a family of four.

Supermarkets promote disconnection between consumers and food producers, says Gonzalez. “But when you know the farmer, you have a special relationship with your food, with the land and with the person who grows it. I think that it’s important for families to experience this.”

When she joined the group, Gonzalez, a double major in business administration and marketing and fine arts with a 3.8 GPA, was tasked with creating a marketing strategy for a small business. The semester-long project was assigned in a senior marketing course at Brooklyn College, but Gonzalez took it a step further and became the organization’s membership coordinator.

“When the program first started in 2009, it was going really well, but two years later it slowed down and I didn’t want it to disappear,” says Gonzalez. In an effort to increase membership, Gonzalez created a marketing plan that included strategies to strengthen community outreach like hosting “meet-the-farmer” events.

“One of the challenges that the CSA faces is that people don’t really know what it is, so we began setting up tables at local community events to answer questions and give out free samples,” she says. She also beefed up the CSA’s online presence by updating its blog and Facebook page. She surveyed community members and learned that 83 percent of survey takers weren’t satisfied with the produce selection at local supermarkets and yet they were unaware of the savings Parkchester CSA could afford them.

At a basement distribution site at St. Paul Evangelical Church earlier this fall, member Rhonda Lamb confessed that being able to avoid supermarkets was one of the draws for her. But that’s not all of it.

“It’s enlightened me about nature’s process,” says Lamb, a mother of two. “I learned about the foods that we eat, and knowing it is pesticide free puts me at ease.”

Before starting her class project, Gonzalez assumed the cost would be a major challenge in attracting members. “They don’t get to see or choose what they’ll get for their money,” she says. So she told them about her market research, which found that residents spend about $34 a week on vegetables. But Parkchester CSA members spend less — only $19 a week.

“I thought Lizzette really connected all the dots between business, agriculture and academic knowledge,” says Brooklyn College professor of business and marketing, Veronica Manlow. “She looked at what she was learning about marketing, management and consumers and connected that to an actual project that was meaningful to her. That’s what makes her a top student.”