Picture your local convenience store. It might be the 7-Eleven around the block or that one bodega with the best drip coffee. The image that comes to mind is likely filled with shimmery, plastic-wrapped candy bars, brightly colored lotto tickets and, well, unhealthy food.
While bodegas and corner stores often aren’t known for healthy snack options, they are known to foster community. Bodegas, most commonly found in New York City, have a deep history. Puerto Rican and Dominican business owners coined the term in the 1960s, and over the decades they’ve become places to share stories, celebrate cultural identities and strengthen neighborhood ties.
Since they’ve become centerpieces in their communities, bodegas often become a point of outreach and information sharing for nonprofits and other organizations. For bodegas located in low-income neighborhoods, where knowledge about nutrition is lacking and healthy food is expensive and often inaccessible, messages around healthy eating become even more important.t
That’s why LaRayia Gaston decided to fuse the low costs of bodegas with the health of Whole Foods. She launched LaRayia’s Bodega, a healthy take on the traditional convenience store.
Step inside and you won’t find Twix Bars or cans of Pringles, but crystals and candles in the entryway and a counter teeming with healthy granola bars, jars of organic pasta sauce and natural juice boxes.
And while most of the products have “all-natural” or “organic” written before its name, every item in the Westlake, California, store costs $5 or less.
“The price point is the activism, the price point is the focus,” Gaston, the bodega’s founder, told The New York Times.
Beyond packaged food, the convenience store, which opened in August, also has a café offering homemade meals. Everything, from the salad to soups, is vegan. It’s all priced under $5, with options ranging from Caribbean-style potato coconut soup to jackfruit tacos.
“This is about giving people a chance to have fresh foods,” Gaston said. “There are people who want salads that don’t have the means. I have war vets that are 60 years old that are like, ‘Give me arugula today, baby.’”
The store is part of Love Without Reason, a nonprofit started by Gaston about four years ago. Outside of the bodega, the nonprofit also provides vegan meals to people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row, a 50-block area with over 4,750 homeless individuals. Gaston and volunteers gather food from grocery stores and restaurants that would have otherwise been thrown away and turn it into meals. The nonprofit delivers about 10,000 meals each month to people in need.
Similar to the meal program, the bodega receives misshapen fruit for free and many of its packaged snacks are donated, offsetting some of the café’s costs.
Eventually, the bodega aims to also support veterans, at-risk youth and people experiencing homelessness with jobs and job training.
“We want to address everything — food injustice, food waste, homelessness, giving people a second chance. I wanted to kill multiple birds with one stone,” Gaston told L.A. Times.
Besides the goal of offering affordable, healthy meals, Gaston aims to make the bodega a space to celebrate neighbors and strengthen community. Whether it’s a weekend birthday party or an open mic night, Gaston wants to foster relationships inside the little store.
That’s why she settled on the term bodega. In Los Angeles, the term “bodega” isn’t often used — “tienditas” is much more common — but Gaston grew up in New York and was raised by Puerto Rican Caribbean parents. Calling her store a bodega is a way of reflecting her roots.
“A bodega is personal,” Gaston told L.A. Taco. “It’s knowing people on your block.”