An estimated 200,000 Westchester residents are impacted by food insecurity, according to data from the Westchester County Board of Legislators, with almost 70% of food-insecure families living above the poverty line.
Mount Vernon entrepreneur Marion Henson is addressing the issue with her startup company Bloom Healthy, which launched in July. Bloom Healthy operates grocery pop-up stores that brings fresh fruits and vegetables to Westchester residents who find themselves in so-called “food deserts” where healthy nutritional choices are limited.
Henson’s business is based on her family’s experiences when food security abruptly became an elusive commodity.
“In March 2017, we found ourselves in a really weird position,” she recalled. “My husband had been in a company for 10 years – he went to work with a job and came home without one, and it led to us experiencing food instability where we needed access to healthy foods and vegetables but weren’t able to get that access. We were one of the families that fell within that threshold where because we made too much that we were not able to qualify for many things.”
The situation was culturally difficult to Henson, who noted her mother’s Jamaican heritage enabled her to grow up appreciating that there were “so many great fruits and vegetables and herbs that we grew up with.” Henson also learned to value the therapeutic value of the proper foods after difficult pregnancies, crediting food as being her “medicine to recover and repair myself.”
Henson had no professional experience in food retailing prior to launching Bloom Healthy – she has a cosmetology license and previously worked with education-focused nonprofits – but she took advantage of assistance from Launch1000, a program of the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, that enabled local entrepreneurs to apply for loans through Kiva, a micro-lending organization that crowdsourced interest-free loans for small businesses. Henson was the first one to gain a Kiva loan, with $8,500 raised on her behalf in three days.
The Bloom Healthy approach provides affordable boxes of organic fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and herbs sourced from Ace Natural, a Mount Vernon-based food distributor, and from someone she identifies as “a local gardener” – she is planning to add an upstate New York farmer as a source.
Henson sets up her shop every Wednesday between 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Center for the Arts building in New Rochelle, and she also has arrangements for a monthly appearance at HudCo, a co-working space in Dobbs Ferry and at the Holiday Market during December in the New Rochelle train station.
The Bloom Healthy selection includes a $35 bag with 12 items that people get to choose and a $25 bag with six items.
“My prices for fruits and vegetables range anywhere and herbs range anywhere from 75 cents depending on the ounce to the most expensive thing that I’ve sold, my butternut squash at $8 or $9 depending on the pound,” she said. “I really try to be price conscious and reflect what people can afford in the communities that I’m serving.”
Bloom Healthy also offers a “Pay it Forward with Kindness” program that enables individuals to purchase groceries on behalf of individuals who would otherwise not be able to complete their transactions.
Henson has been operating Bloom Healthy as a one-woman operation, with assistance from a pair of Monroe College graduate students working as interns.
“I would say that my husband is also assisting because he helps take me to and from the pop-ups and to pick up the food and everything like that, but I am the main employee,” she added.
Looking forward, Henson would like to explore expanding her business into “any city that has limited or no access” to organic fruits and vegetables, and she wants to include an educational aspect on matching foods for their fullest therapeutic value.
“I’m very excited because I can see us being something that’s accessible, humane, reliable,” she said.