South Bronx Supermarket Shortage Leaves Minorities Starved For Healthy Food

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Lisa Harris knows how to put together a healthy, balanced dinner. Baked salmon alongside brown rice, served with a few broccoli florets – that’s the kind of meal she prefers to make for her family. But since moving to the South Bronx from California six years ago, it’s been a constant struggle for the mother of two young boys –2 and 4 years old – to find stores close to home that sell the ingredients she needs.

Harris lives in the Patterson housing projects in Mott Haven, a small neighborhood in the southernmost part of the Bronx. Mott Haven and the surrounding communities have been identified by the New York City Planning Department as areas suffering from a severe shortage of supermarkets, according to a report released last October.

As one of the United States’ most well known predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, the South Bronx provides a stark snapshot of the crisis in the availability of healthy foods for minorities nationwide.

With 82,000 residents and 12 supermarkets, the South Bronx has 22,000 more people than the whiter and wealthier Upper West Side—but less than half as many groceries, according to city planning department data and maps.

Absence of supermarkets contributes to area health troubles

But Mott Haven residents like Harris didn’t need a map to tell them that something was wrong.

“There’s nothing around here,” she said. “It’s really terrible how you go like 40 blocks downtown, and there everything is.”

But more than merely inconveniencing residents—who often have to leave the area altogether to find decent produce—the scarcity of healthy food is resulting in dire health consequences for the neighborhood. Two-thirds of adults in the South Bronx are overweight, compared with one-half citywide; one in four is obese, compared with one in five citywide; and 17 percent have diabetes, compared with 10 percent citywide, according to the NYC Department of Health.

What Mott Haven lacks in supermarkets, it makes up in fast food restaurants and bodegas. Standing at the center of the HUB, the South Bronx’s major shopping area, one is surrounded on all sides by fast food restaurants. Up ahead on Third Avenue is a McDonalds, while off to the west on 149th Street sits a Kentucky Fried Chicken. A glance in the opposite direction will yield a Subway sandwich shop.

Meanwhile, it’s not unusual to see two or three bodegas on the same block. Thanks to the dearth of supermarkets, these small shops are where residents purchase most of their groceries, according to the South Bronx District Public Health Office (DPHO). But they are not typically the best places to find fresh, quality fruits and vegetables. A recent study found that only 18% of bodegas in minority neighborhoods carried a selection of healthy foods.

Entering one small shop at 151st and Melrose, for example, shoppers are greeted by a rack of tempting but unhealthy treats like Hostess Pound Cakes and fried pork skins. But for a single cardboard box of bananas sitting on the floor beside the snack foods, the only fruits and vegetables shoppers will find here are in cans. In bodegas all around Mott Haven, the selection is more or less the same.

Kids suffering the consequences

Children in the area, even more than their parents, are hit hard by the poor access to healthy food. Nearly half of those in South Bronx Head Start pre-school programs identified as overweight by the health department.

Harris brings her sons to the Head Start at the Mott Haven community center. While they don’t struggle with their weight, plenty of others in the program do, and administrators who interact with parents are certain that the limited food shopping options contribute to the problem.

Susan Ortega, the health and nutrition director for Mott Haven Head Start, has noticed the increasing numbers of overweight kids, and how it affects their lives.

“You see them struggle a little more, especially when it comes to running,” she said.

So, she meets with the parents of overweight children one-on-one, to get an idea of what they’re up against and to give them strategies on how to make healthy eating a part of their kids’ lives. More often than not, parents complain that healthy foods are simply hard to find.

“When you go [to the grocery store] here, you’re not going to see the things you’d see in a different neighborhood. Everything is fats, you don’t see organic, or whole foods,” Ortega says.

And for parents of children in Head Start programs, which are strictly for low-income families, even when they can find healthy options, the prices can be prohibitive. Ortega encourages them to buy items when they’re on sale, but even that isn’t necessarily a solution if produce and healthy items aren’t what’s being given price reductions.

For Harris, the items on sale are precisely what she doesn’t want.

“It’s all the foods that will make you fat that are always on sale. The stuff with the most sugar, the most sodium, the most trans-fats,” Harris says. “You can get four packs of hot dogs for $5.”

Head Start teacher Julie Perkins believes that part of the problem may also be cultural, both in terms of the purchasing decisions parents in the area make, and in what the stores make available. Mott Haven is nearly three-quarters Hispanic, according to the 2000 census, and in many Hispanic cultures white or yellow rice is a staple food, and much of the meat is fried. So, Perkins says, parents buy and feed the kids traditional foods.

Ortega agrees. “What they cook, it’s too many carbs, a lot of rice and breads,” she says.

Plenty of healthy choices, but no customers?

She thinks that lack of customer demand plays a role in the absence of fresh produce in many of the neighborhood bodegas, and the resulting health consequences.

“I don’t blame [store owners] that this is happening,” Ortega says. “Part of it is that this is what the community is asking for, so they just get what’s going to sell.”

Juan Santana, who owns one of the few bodegas in the area that has a wide selection of fresh produce, corroborates Ortega’s theory. Outside his store on Melrose Avenue, there are rows of oranges, apples, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables that would rival any Manhattan grocery store. But browsing customers are scarce, he says. And continuing to provide produce for customers who seem uninterested can be difficult.

“It’s expensive,” Santana says. “People are buying more bread and rice, and cookies and candy.”

Searching far and wide for healthy options — very far

Still, plenty of residents say they would take greater advantage of nearby healthy shopping options if given the opportunity. But even among the few grocery stores that are close, residents complain that the food quality is poor. One even claimed to have bought bread, only to find the edges nibbled off by rats. As a result, some have given up shopping in Mott Haven almost altogether.

Elaine Rivera, who lives in the Mott Haven housing projects, regularly drives down to the Pathmark at 125th Street in Harlem. It’s a bit out of her way, she says, but the larger selection and freshness of the produce makes the trip worth it.

Rose Melton, who has a 4-year-old daughter in the Head Start program, journeys even farther: to the Fort Hamilton military base in Brooklyn, more than a 30-minute drive away. She lives in the Patterson projects, like Harris, and her husband is in the military. She never buys substantial amounts of groceries in her neighborhood if she can avoid it, opting instead to only stop by the local C-Town Supermarket or bodega for things like juice, or snack items that are on sale.

As for Harris, her supermarket of choice is the Trader Joe’s in Union Square, a 35-minute ride on the Number 5 subway line. But she doesn’t have the time to make the trip more than once every few months.

“You have to make due with what you have in the neighborhood,” she says. “You have to be savvy. I can’t go to one place and get all my meat, my bread, and my vegetables.”

So she pieces together what she can from the bodegas and C-Town, Western Beef and Pioneer supermarkets in the area, getting her meats from one place, her starches from another, and her produce from yet another, always in search of the best quality.

For many residents, the only time that finding healthy and high-quality food becomes easier is during the summer and early fall, when a number of farmer’s markets open in the neighborhood. Harris has long been a shopper at the markets, and naturally finds them more convenient than trekking down to Manhattan.

“Health Bucks” and farmers markets: temporary fixes to an long-term problem?

The city government, recognizing the scarcity of fresh produce in the South Bronx and other parts of the city, has taken steps to make shopping at the markets more affordable. The South Bronx Public Health office distributes Health Bucks, $2 coupons redeemable for fruit or vegetables from farmers markets, through the food stamps program, community groups, and the markets themselves. Last year they distributed 7,000 Health Bucks, and 70 percent were redeemed at the markets, suggesting that they are helping to alleviate part of residents’ problem accessing healthy food.

Marian Freinberg, a member of For A Better Bronx, an organization that has run a farmers market on 138th Street since 2007, believes that the relative success of the Health Bucks program proves that there is a real desire for healthier food in Mott Haven, but that price and lack of proximity are hindering residents.

“There’s this mythology of, ‘Well, the reason why there’s not more [fresh produce] is that people in these neighborhoods are used to eating KFC, so people want the KFC, and that’s why they’re not getting the broccoli,’” Freinberg says “But when you have the Health Bucks, people are lined up to buy carrots and apples. So it shows that a lot of this issue is one of affordability rather than of taste.”

But as helpful as the farmer’s markets can be, when they close up for the winter in mid- to late-November, residents find themselves back at square one. In the entire borough, not a single farmers market remains open year-round.

The promise of more supermarkets to come, a decade away

Residents’ struggle is not lost on city government, and plans are in the works to make it easier for grocery stores to come to Mott Haven. Efforts to re-zone the Lower Concourse, the stretch of Grand Concourse that runs up the western edge of Mott Haven, have been ongoing for nearly three years, according to the city-planning department.

The plan, which hopes to encourage the building of more middle-income residences in the area, would eliminate the requirement for food stores of more than 10,000 square feet to apply for special permits to set up shop in the area. The hope is that removing that application process, which the office admits is “time-consuming and expensive,” would encourage more supermarkets to come to the underserved area.

However, as the plan is still in the review stage, and wouldn’t be approved until mid- to late-2009 at the earliest, it offers little help to residents now. In fact, those at the city planning office say it could be as long as 10 years before any building in the Lower Concourse area begins, supermarket-related or otherwise.

Since the encouragement to build more supermarkets is just one part of the Lower Concourse Rezoning plan, some feel that it’s more a symptom of the gentrification that has slowly begun in Mott Haven than of genuine governmental concern for the health of the neighborhood’s lower-income Black and Latino residents.

“Why does it have to be that only when white people come, we see changes?” asked Lisa Harris. “Why can’t we get good food now?”

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OPINION: Blacks Need Health Food As Much As Health Care

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