Transcript of Episode 10B: East End NRZ Pup-Up Market and Cafe

with host David Richards [DR] and guests Deborah Thomas-Sims [DS], Kristin duBay Horton [KH] and Deborah Caviness [DC].
Listen to the audio

[DR] Hi Healthy Communities podcast listeners, if you haven’t already heard, we’ve announced the winners of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. These next episodes are going to be dedicated to our winners and their amazing stories. Our second episode is with Deborah Thomas-Sims, Kristin duBay Horton, and Deborah Caviness from the Bridgeport Coalition United to Reach Equity project in Connecticut. Enjoy!

[DR] Welcome to the Healthy Communities podcast; a public health-themed podcast that breaks down common health issues in our communities, and how Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge projects aim to address them. I am your host, David Richards from APHA. This is Episode 10B: East End NRZ Pop-Up Market and Café.


[DS] I’ll start. I’m Debbie Sims. I am the community champion. I’m also a member of the East End Revitalization Zone.

[DC] My name is Deborah Caviness. I’m the president and CEO of the Greater Bridgeport OIC incorporated.

[KH] My name is Kristin duBay Horton and I am the program evaluator.

[DR] Great. Thank you. To start, congratulations for being the winner of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. It’s a pleasure to award this to you all. We were blown away from your project from the very beginning. Congratulations. To start, give the audience a background. What is the NRZ Pop-Up Market and Café and what is Bridgeport like? What is the East End like?

[KH] This project is part of a long line of projects and work trying to end a food desert within the city with a lot of outside organizations coming in and trying to help get access to healthy food part of this neighborhood. And so, the EPA invited the NRZ to come to a trip to Boston, and that was about three years ago, and out of that trip, we visited a store, a not-for-profit. They had a commercial kitchen in it. We visited a small café operated by people with were either coming out of prison or coming out of rehab for job training. And we visited a shared commercial kitchen space. On the writing around Boston, the community members said that we want to do all three. Which, at that point I was part of the administration, I thought, we can’t; that would be crazy. We can’t do all three, we can only do a little bite. What people kept saying was, no. with all those problems, the violence, the lack of jobs, the lack of community space, and the lack of access to affordable foods are all plaguing this city and we put them all at the top of our list. And we don’t get them all done because we never attack them together. As the health director, I was saying, I don’t know how we can possibly get it all done. They won everyone on the bus over on this idea, and that’s where the pop-up began.

[DS] From the community perspective, it’s been thirty years since access to fresh fruits and vegetables outside of the attempt from Sunday mornings when we threw from Kristin’s efforts a farmer’s market; we haven’t had that for the last few years. The emphasis on the market is strictly going to be really on fresh fruits and vegetables, no junk, and milk, eggs dairy products. That became the focus for us. That also became the focus for the market café aspect, job training aspect, a place for young folks to come out, to hang out. It’s a place for young folks to gather and talk through issues. We have to start addressing the issues of violence in the community and it has to be a safe place for them to gather at. The market is going to be the alternative through that through one of our partners working with us advising us on the structure as to how to do that.

[DC] For how we determined the problem and the solution. It was a no brainer. The problem, as Deborah said, is three decades of not having access to healthy fresh fruits and produce. That is the problem. We knew how to come up with a solution; the only problem was determining how to come up with the financial resources. And that is where we were really fortunate to receive the healthiest cities and counties challenge support. That was major. That was a game-changer for helping us end the problem. It jump started the market idea and that’s where we are today. I think what probably was a considering factor too was the health assessment. That was done and clearly outlined all of the health challenges that was in the East End because of their diets.

[DR] Of course. To back up a little bit, what is the neighborhood like? What is the historical context of the city like? That would be great. 

[DS] The way they want to talk about the neighborhood, is not how I see the neighborhood, so Kristen, I want you to talk about how you and health directors talk about the neighborhood first.

[KH] So when I look at this neighborhood, and I think the best way to do it is to look at the map data. This is the neighborhood with the highest rates of obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the state. It is also the neighborhood with the highest rates of violence. It’s also the highest rates of unemployment and youth unemployment in the entire state. When you look at all of those factors together, low car ownership, low homeownership, high rates of folks spending a high rate of their income for keeping a roof over their heads. All of those things together play into a level of unhealthy stress that leads to levels in premature death. That’s a public health perspective.

[DS] I say that to say this. Sunday, we had a conversation with teenagers about the neighborhood and what they saw. It’s a place where families are raised. It’s a place where Mrs. Blackwell makes the best candy yams. They see it as a community. For them, all of those other issues aren’t important, but to an outsider like an evaluator they describe our neighborhood differently from what kids see it as. They see it as a community amongst themselves. To them it’s a safe spot because it’s all they know. Then, from coming from me, from someone who lives there. I have to be careful how I describe the community because while outside evaluators see it a different way, to us, its home. When I work with young people, it’s safe for them there. That’s their home. They think that it’s okay and that the things that happen there is part of who they are and how they’re growing up. When I read and when I got older and realized that Stratford Avenue was Stratford Avenue because our parents were so protective and it’s so guarded that half of the little people who go to school over there they don’t realize that half of those things go on over there. It’s because they have their parents and protective systems around them, so they don’t realize that they grow up in an environment that is so violent and that the stores and everything around there function. We talk about obesity, that’s big mama to us. All of our big mamas are always big.

[DR] That's really well said how you put the human aspect of it which is sometimes lost in the conversation. I guess, to that point, let's talk about the last couple of years and the amazing work that you've been able to accomplish. What does it mean to be a finalist and to be rewarded for that work over the last two years?

[DS] Well, I'm still in shock. 

[DC] That's an understatement. I think that from my perspective, it is overwhelming and it feels like a dream to finally be recognized as community leaders. It's great to finally be recognized for the work that's been done in this community. you have to admit, this is an amazing project. I mean, you're able to address all of the issues in one location.

[KH] I also think about the fact that this is just so different. We were really fortunate to be a part of this Challenge because we'd get to get together periodically with other communities who were part of the Challenge grant, and hear what they were doing and see how they were growing and learning and expanding. But in the same way, I think what we learned in the process is that if we followed that original plan, which was that we're going to be open in nine months, we're going to get outside help to do the build for us. Then we wouldn't have gotten the community engaged as fully, and what's going to sustain this store long-term is that community engagement. People who live in the neighborhood said hey, my cousin is an electrician and he can talk to the electricity union. Or hey, I have a cousin who cuts granite and he can help you get counter tops. Because we had that time, which I didn't plan on in the evaluation plan, but that time gave us that stake to make that community made happen. 

[DS] It’s just those connections. Even yesterday, we were having a problem with getting our coolers moved. We were on the phone and someone says, “I know someone who has a bobcat.” We were in the middle of Stratford Avenue moving these refrigerators with this bobcat. And I was like, “Who does this?” We do. I call the police department, “Can you give me an escort? We’re trying to move these refrigerators.” Who does that? Because everyone knows how important this store is, then we’re all trying to get it done and everyone is pitching in. For example, somebody calls somebody else, and then somebody else calls somebody else. They say, “Mrs. Sims, he’ll do it.” The project has taken on a life of its own. I’m grateful and thankful for everybody willing to pitch in to do what they have to do. Let’s not mislead anybody, the challenges have been great.

[DC] Yes, they have been.

[DS] But we have overcome those challenges.

[DR] Let’s do that. Let’s go around the table and name your number one greatest achievement and number one greatest challenge that you’ve faced.

[DS] I can’t do that first. I have to think about it. The greatest achievement and greatest challenge.

[KH] The greatest challenge is bureaucracy. There is so much that you need permission to do. There are many, many layers of permission. Bridgeport is the biggest city in Connecticut, but in a lot of ways it’s a small town. If you have to go to building code or to zoning, and if three people don’t show up because it’s bad weather or if there’s a funeral in town or whatever, then they don’t get covered. You can’t get in front of them that day. Or you get different people who were at the meeting last month and they have different questions from the ones that you put time and energy getting the architect does for you. The bureaucracy of getting it down, I mean this is not a big ten thousand foot thing, this is a little tiny store. What it takes to get through that, none of us could have imagined. The biggest accomplishment is that we have Lillian Wade defending us. When anyone said anything negative, she said “no, no, no. This is why it’s going to work.” She is our biggest champion now. When you see community members really change the way that they see the world, based on an activity, because this is more than just healthy eating, this is about people feeling that they have the power to control their own destiny.

[DS] I want to say that after, this is really the first project, after ten years, we’ve had multiple developers come to this neighborhood and meet with groups of people saying we’re going to do this and this. And they have had multiple let downs. I want to say that my greatest challenge was that I had a fear that we were not going to be able to get this done. I don’t know why I had this fear because the team that we assembled was and this trio here, we were not going to not get this project done. We were already doing the work; we had so many obstacles thrown in our way. One day I called Deborah crying, the next day I called Kristen crying. This is what happened today and I don’t know what we’re going to do, and then they talked me off the ledge. The next day, we’re back at it again. That was my greatest challenge, in the back of my head, what was the next thing that someone was going to throw in our way? By living there it was every day, “how is the store going?” “What’s taking you so long?” “What’s going on?” I was always very open and honest with the community. My new problem is, “Do you want us to call somebody?” No I don’t need you to call yet because in the beginning some would call and then I can’t have 30-40 people calling this department or that department because someone of them knew how to talk to people on the phone and some would become angry and aggressive. When I needed them to call, I would have them call. It became a challenge. Understanding the construction process and when we thought a simple five thousand dollar grant became a twenty thousand dollar grant. If you look at our store, you’ll see that there are no other stores on Stratford Avenue that have the requirements that our store had to do. All of the things that we had to go through. So politics and privilege came into play. When you are not the favorite child of the administration, we had other requirements that we had placed on us that other people did not have to do. Now that we’re talking about it, I was at a business council meeting and they were like, “Why haven’t we heard anything about this market?” I said because we were afraid that somebody was going to sabotage our market. We were busy doing our work. I actually wanted to say it’s because your community doesn’t come into our community so you guys wouldn’t know what was going on in our community because you guys are afraid to come in there. But if you crossed into the ZIP code, you would know what was going on in our community. I want to say that now that we’re at this point, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Aetna for believing in our vision. I believe that it was Aetna who bought us credibility. People did not look at us until they realized that we were one of the healthiest cities and counties challenge participants. Before it was just these three crazy black women who had an idea. Everyone knows that I call it like I see it and that’s what it was. So my mother always said that sometimes someone has to recognize you from far away before your own home city recognized you, and that’s what Aetna and the healthiest cities and counties challenge did for us.

[DR] That is really great and important to say. I want to wrap up and get to our last question, which is about the future of the pop-up market. I know that you have been moving fast on getting it open, can you tell me about the status? What’s the next step?

[DC] I think the next steps for us is, and we talked about, incorporating a food delivery service. We have a lot of elderly in the East End and we have people with disabilities who may not be able to come to the market and we’d like to be able to serve them as well as anyone who has a problem with transportation. That’s one of the areas that we will be expanding into. And we do have some other ideas. Deb, do you want to jump in with other things we’ve been discussing?

[DS] Sure. We expect to be open in February. And permit approved once we get through all of the permitting. We have a couple other things. We’re waiting on the delivery of a couple of appliances but all of the hard work has been done. Wait until you see the pictures; it is absolutely beautiful in there. I didn’t realize how beautiful it was until everyone else looked at it yesterday and they were in awe of what the space looked it. When you’re in it every day, you don’t realize what it looks like. With the job training piece, we’re actively hiring and looking for folks to work in there.

[DC] We also talked about turning a portion of it into a commercial kitchen for the local caterers and those in the food industry to have a place to go because that is a major problem in the city of Bridgeport. There is another commercial kitchen in Bridgeport but the rates are unaffordable to the small businesses. We talked about turning a part of that into a commercial kitchen and a stationary job training program facility. Of course we’ll have health and wellness workshops there as well and focus on workshops with the children on cooking demonstrations and healthy eating to help combat the obesity problem.

[DR] This has been so much fun to talk to you three. Is there any last word that you want to add?

[DC] Our closing comment, Deborah, should be, “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”


[DR] That’s the show this week! Thank you to my guests and thank you all for listening. Links to more resources can be found on the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge website at healthiestcities.org under about the challenge, podcast. I’ll see you next time.