May 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

A Hunt for Food in Corona, Queens

Generally I food-shop on weekends for meals to be prepared during the week. For the last 15 years, I’ve lived in a food desert. If it weren’t for my multicultural-Guyanese upbringing, my own children would be at an edible disadvantage, particularly living among the empty options that are available.

We were raised to eat fresh, every day. But that’s precisely the dilemma we now face. If you have to cook fresh every day, where do you get your groceries from?

There is no farmer’s market in this part of Queens. There is no green grocer here. We are flanked by bodegas, liquor stores, fast food drive-thru, building construction, car repairs, and a slaughterhouse that’s open on weekends, offering customers live poultry. The smell in the summer is hideous and unappetizing. There’s something wrong with the meat.

A coffee shop in Corona, Queens (Flickr | Chris Goldberg)

A coffee shop in Corona, Queens
(Flickr | Chris Goldberg)

Corona, Queens, is a food desert. The neighborhood is suffering from a paralysis of food options and an onslaught of food racism. While celebrity chefs and other vain foodies head out into the diverse neighborhoods of Queens, attempting to find hidden edibles in New York, you can’t find much around Corona. On one specific street which spans about five to six blocks there are two supermarkets; neither has anything fresh or local available.

As you walk into the supermarket, the anxiety of shopping is heightened by extremely loud, bass-thumping music and cramped aisles that do not allow more than one person to walk through at a time. There are dirty shopping baskets and lots of products arranged in pyramids to the ceiling: mayonnaise, chile peppers in cans, enormous bags of rice, canned Goya beans, oil, and containers of salt alongside the 2 Liter Pepsi pyramid for $.99 cents offer.

When you walk to the vegetable section, the only produce that looks fairly edible are green plantains which are ten for two dollars, but only if you spend more than $25 during your shopping trip.

There are yams and yucca but even the garlic bunches next to them have green and gray pouches of mold.

The “green” section of the supermarket is overstuffed by carrot leaves, bunches of cilantro, parsley, and iceberg lettuce wrapped in plastic. There is no sign for organic, nothing to gain the interest of that kind of shopper. Is this what they think of me, their customer? That I’m willing to buy rotten and moldy vegetables because there’s no other option in the area?

I see a sign advertising single butter sticks three for one dollar. The packaging clearly states that single units are not for resale. People are stocking up, because it’s cheaper than buying them in the box.

As an organic-when-I-can mama, there isn’t anything I would feel confident feeding my baby or my preschooler. Nearby, a little boy is whining and tugging at his mother for a treat. To quiet him, his mother tells him in Spanish that afterwards she will buy him an ice cream.

I know what “ice cream” she’s talking about. It’s the fake Mr. Softee truck. I want to scream, “don’t buy him that please!”

But I know that, in this neighborhood, that’s the only ice cream there is.

Meat access is another problem. A real butcher shop is another train-ride away as its some 40 blocks toward the city again. In the past, many supermarkets were charged with re-labeling expired meat. I have no doubt these very supermarkets were guilty of it too and are probably still doing it. Maybe not many families know that just recently the USDA found that 53% of tested chicken was tainted with an antibiotic-resistant form of E.Coli.

While the beef pieces had grayish tints, what caught my eye was the variety of “feet for sale.” Packaged in Styrofoam containers were cow’s feet, pig’s feet, and salted versions of the same.  The package of “fresh pig’s feet” held ten pieces, and was on sale for $2.76, with an expiration date of 4 days prior. The label read “Family Pack of USA.”

The “salted pig’s feet” had an expiration of a month ago. I think of those who buy the “family packs” of supermarket animal’s foot or the chicken pieces that are under $0.50 each because they think they are getting a “value.” They ask no questions, they aren’t sure they need to demand better. While certainly not everyone in the zip code feels disenfranchised, I am not alone.

In this neighborhood and neighborhoods like these, it’s cheaper to eat poorly. It simply doesn’t make “good economical sense to buy something healthy which might be better for me, but that I can’t afford” as one young woman told me.

Bad food behavior is encouraged in these neighborhoods. For example, fresh corn is boiled and dipped in mayonnaise and doused in paprika on almost every corner. That particular dish I have been told, ‘is comfort food” and is the first encounter of food you find, descending down the train station at 11th street in Corona. Food celebrities popularize this dish because it fits a search for what I call “ethnic edibles” but what they fail to show is the fact that for blocks at a time that mayo corn quick-fix might be the only thing available.

Many have argued that the demand for healthy food, is simply invisible in these neighborhoods. Tracie McMillan’s American Way of Eating takes a moment to thoroughly describe a Brooklyn neighborhood that just as easily could have been the very neighborhood I’m talking about here. Making change among the stagnant becomes even more difficult when options are limited, shrinking and then vanish all together. The diversity of food deserts experience this type of cause and effect process, particularly in urban environments, like McMillan’s Brooklyn, and this area of Queens.

Finding food becomes a thing of caveman activities. It’s a literal hunt. Where I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, my mother made these kinds of “planned” food choices but we also had access to “spur of the moment” ingredients. Unless radical changes happen in this food desert of Corona, people’s choices will always be limited to what they have come to believe defines them.

-Regina A. Bernard-Carreno, PhD