Photo: Demetria Osei-Tutu. Ora Kemp in her Mott Haven home with her dog Marley.

Bringing food education and the South Bronx to TikTok

Ora Kemp stands in a light grey v-neck sweater and jade green necklace in her Mott Haven kitchen. She grabs her blender, removing the bladed bottom section and places it on her mason jar, then whips up a pink smoothie with mango and berries.  Her bespectacled face opens in joyous disbelief.

Then the video ends.

This viral TikTok, called #lifehack, has 6.8 million views. Kemp, director of nutrition for New York Common Pantry, specifically their Live Healthy! program, did not expect this when she posted the video. She just wanted to save cleanup time by blending directly in the mason jar, and decided to post a TikTok of her morning discovery.

According to a report by Cloudfare, TikTok, the video-focused app, is the most popular site of 2021.

Kemp has been making TikToks since December 2020. She wanted to use TikTok as a space to share her recipes, since she dreams of having a cookbook one day. But she also wanted to use TikTok as a place to help people learn about nutrition and health. She highlights things around her Mott Haven neighborhood and tries to find resources within the community.

“I found that TikTok is an incredible tool for being able to get information directly to people without any kind of external influence,” Kemp said.

Kemp calls her page The Bodega Bites.  Knowing that her South Bronx community has a 25 bodega to 1 supermarket ratio, Kemp based the name around her desire to shop at her local bodegas and still make healthy recipes such as chipotle squash tostadas, depending on the options available at the bodegas. It was not always easy.

“If I have all of this experience around food and what it means to eat healthy and I’m struggling to make it work, then I know others are struggling to make it work,” Kemp said.

The Bodega Bites has 73,400 followers. Some of her videos have a range of a few hundred views to a few hundred thousand.    

Kemp likes having her own personal TikTok. She enjoys getting to be herself without having to perform.” She gets to control her content and be free in a way you can’t always be in a work environment.

Since starting, Kemp has branched out from the initial idea of recipes and uses TikTok as a platform to discuss microplastics in foods, community fridges and food packaging and waste. Kemp also discusses other important issues revolving around systemic racism in academia to feminism.

But she has fun with her TikTok, as well.  She makes videos showcasing her beautiful new plants and has joined the viral Tik Tok challenge in which participants dance to music in everyday clothes and then switch to dressy attire and prance to Erica Banks’ “Buss It” song.

The viral success has made her recognizable. Kemp recalls an encounter with a man on the bus in the Bronx, who recognized her. He thanked her for the information in her videos. Her videos helped him as a diabetic who cannot afford to see a dietitian.

Followers like zarigee – Your Food Freedom RD and Todd David praise Kemp’s content. Todd David called it “Informative” under a watermelon video.

“Thanks for talking about this. Food waste is such an awful part of our economic system,” said zarigee – Your Food Freedom RD about Kemp’s Whole Food Waste TikTok.

Kemp loves how accessible TikTok is, specifically for people in the South Bronx. She works at Live Healthy! from New York Common Pantry and they teach food nutrition.

Live Healthy! is a federally funded program focused on people who use the SNAP food assistance program. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that supplements the cost and purchase of nutritious foods for low-income New Yorkers.

Kemp had a meeting with statewide managers for the New York Common Pantry programs. They discussed a possible new meal order program called SNAP Express, which would send people ingredients to make specific meals like Hello Fresh does. Kemp said they asked her for input on potentially making a Tik Tok to promote the program.

Kemp thinks they should make one but knows “it’s work, a lot of work” to maintain and make content for TikTok. She emphasized there would need to be a team to manage the page, but she hopes they will proceed because she feels Tik Tok is doing a better job of reaching people than other social media platforms.

“I need to be where people are and right now that’s TikTok,” Kemp said.

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