Healthy Oasis in a Food Desert

By Scott Pruden | Photos by Justin Heyes

Wilmington entrepreneur Jason Aviles is adamant about spreading the gospel of healthier eating and living, so much so that he was willing to set up a juicing station in a neighborhood barbershop to prove his point.

Back in 2016, the idea that would later become his plant-based restaurant Green Box Kitchen was literally a pushcart manned by youths from the surrounding community.

Aviles knew he had a challenge ahead of him: Take a neighborhood largely abandoned by supermarkets (and their accompanying produce sections) and convince customers of the benefits and deliciousness of the plant-based products he was purveying. At the same time, his goal was to hire local teens to help them learn business and entrepreneurial skills.

“I remember going to a local barbershop here in the community, and at the time we had cold-pressed apple, beet and carrot juice, and we were doing it in the 16-ounce Mason jars,” he says. “And I remember having a conversation with one of the barbers, and he argued with me that carrots and beets could not make juice.”

Aviles, who was living in nearby Shipley Lofts at the time, promptly went to his apartment and returned to the barbershop just off Market Street with his juicer and enough carrots and beets to prove his point, creating on the spot the same cold-pressed juice he and his team sold from their cart.

“I juiced the carrots and beets in front of him and everyone that was in that barbershop, and he was sold,” says Aviles. “I couldn’t go into these barbershops and say, ‘Hey, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I’m about to school your ass.’”

Instead, Aviles, who grew up in the housing projects of the Bronx in New York City, understood where the barber was coming from because he had also lived a life surrounded by processed, sugar-laden foods rather than fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I had to come in there with the utmost respect and humility and humbleness to take into account all of that, because that’s the reason why this conversation, this opportunity, is even happening,” he says.

It was a clear example of how the energetic, upbeat entrepreneur is determined to bring to Wilmington not necessarily what residents say they want, but what he knows they need, gently leading by example and changing minds one at a time.


Motivated to Help Others

With his infectious positivity and charisma, Aviles has become adept at educating non-believers and bringing them along for the ride. His Wilmington ventures have all blossomed from the transition he made from a child of the projects to someone motivated to help others — even though for a while he says he wasn’t quite sure how he should do that.

Motivated by his mother and her own powerful personality, Aviles began work early, bagging groceries at a nearby supermarket at 14 after his mom convinced the manager to hire her underage son. He moved on through a variety of public-facing and sales jobs, eventually becoming an education para-professional in a Bronx public school at the age of 21. That was his first experience as an adult working to help underserved kids, but it wouldn’t be his last.

“I started to feel the responsibility I had to be a role model for them,” he said during a Wilmington TEDx talk in 2018. “And for the first time in my life I felt like this could possibly be my purpose.”

He was ready to pursue this calling to help others, but also anxious to leave behind the pace and pressures of New York living. At the suggestion of a friend who had relocated here, Aviles moved to Delaware. He worked in schools as a special education advisor and behavior counselor, among other jobs, eventually leaving to work at a maximum-security juvenile prison in upstate New York before returning to Wilmington after 10 months.

After another stint in a Delaware school, he realized that for all that was being done to address the symptoms displayed by young people underserved by society and the educational system, little was being done to address the root causes of those symptoms. He left that job in the hopes of finding a path that would help him put his vision into action.


An Alternate Avenue

That’s when he stumbled across an online ad for Maharishi Management University in Fairfield, Iowa. Founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (of Beatles fame), the school focused on consciousness-based education.

Much to the chagrin of those who knew him, Aviles declared in 2011 that he was leaving Delaware to attend the school in hopes of finding an alternate avenue for helping young people and the community at large.

In Iowa, he learned the tenets of transcendental meditation while pursuing a self-designed interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in youth development and social change. He also came face to face with two practices that would drive much of what he did thereafter: veganism and yoga.

Aviles, who grew up in the housing projects of the Bronx in New York City, says yoga and veganism have changed the direction of his life.

Aviles admits that at the time, he was both overweight and suffering from chronic asthma and bronchitis. The school, meanwhile, “was 100% vegetarian for three meals a day and snacks,” he says. One of his instructors, originally from India, suggested he take up yoga and consider dropping dairy from his diet to alleviate his lifelong respiratory troubles.

“And I tried it,” Aviles says. “And I mean 12 years later, I haven’t had an asthmatic issue. And yoga was a super important part of my journey because the way I was taught was that it was a lifestyle. It wasn’t just getting on the mat with tight pants and stretching.”

Aviles also credits yoga and following a plant-based diet with helping him to lose more than 100 pounds. That, combined with his focus on uplifting others, prompted him to return to Wilmington to share what he learned.

With the benefit of a college degree and the knowledge he gained from three years of focusing on his own physical and spiritual health, he was determined to bring the lessons he learned back to the communities he had served in Wilmington.

His first goal was to take his yoga experience to a broader audience.

In 2014, he opened his yoga studio, Flyogi, at 1113 W. 9th St. It offered yoga classes taught by Aviles and three other instructors. In addition, he conducted free community yoga classes in art spaces throughout the Wilmington area. His classes took place at locations as diverse as schools and corporate retreats.

Today, in addition to maintaining its Wilmington studio, Flyogi has evolved into an international company, offering customized yoga programs in person and online to an ever-expanding roster of clients. Aviles also launched the Urban Yoga Program in late 2023 in partnership with the Wilmington Alliance. Located at Art O Mat at the corner of 7th and Washington streets, and designed specifically for men, the program was an eight-week intensive designed to break yoga stereotypes while imparting the physical and mental benefits of yoga.

But there was something else that preyed on Aviles’ mind: Based on federal statistics about the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, Wilmington was a food desert.

Stepping into food service, Aviles aimed to change that by creating Wilmington Green Box, a combination food cart and youth employment program designed to help Wilmington’s young people learn business and entrepreneurial skills while creating a healthy food alternative for those who lived and worked downtown.


A Place on the Corner

Aviles’ cornerstone venture, Green Box Kitchen, at 400 N. Market St., started in 2019 with a revolutionary idea — take the Green Box concept and create a fast service restaurant around exclusively plant-based recipes and ingredients while continuing to serve the downtown market he’d cultivated through creative marketing like his barbershop juicer demonstration.

Five year later, having made it through the pandemic, the associated restaurant shutdowns, limits on indoor food service and — finally — a return to relative stability, Aviles credits his customers and the surrounding community with the success of Green Box Kitchen.

“I think what allowed us to stay afloat was our customers just being so committed and dedicated to wanting our food, and our success and our ability to adapt and react to all the situations, circumstances that were taking place in real time,” he says.

Today, customers who may have once relied on salty snacks and sugary drinks from the corner store now make Green Box Kitchen a regular stop for smoothies, cold pressed juices, acai bowls and signature dishes like the gluten-free Belgian waffle or vegan “tuna” salad.

“Those same people from 2016 and 2015 are still here to this very day,” Aviles says. “They still come into this restaurant. They still grow it with our menu and our offerings. It’s an amazing experience being here. It really is.”

Above: Jason Aviles with Green Box Kitchen colleagues Janina Vallon (center) and Amor Alberto.