The controversy that was unleashed when Councilman Joel Rivera mused about using zoning to restrict the proliferation of fast food outlets has tended to obscure the compelling issue of the availability of healthy food alternatives in the neighborhoods that Rivera was focusing on. It is an issue that Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez has tried to address with her initiative on "healthy bodegas."
There is an extremely provocative policy paper written by JC Dwyer that takes a look at the anomalous incidence of poverty and obesity in East Harlem. Dwyer does focus some attention on the role of fast food but goes on to take a long look at the lifestyles and attitudes of the people of East Harlem as well as the availability of health food options.
This is something that is also looked at by City Limits in its mapping of grocery stores and McDonalds in the city. While we would disagree with some of the superficial policy analysis in the Dwyer piece (in particular the comparison of East Harlem with the Upper East Side), it does have the merit of highlighting an important issue that deserves the attention of policy makers.
It is precisely why the NYC Department of Health has launched its program to encourage bodegas to offer vegetables and low fat milk to its customers (what the Velasquez initiative tries to incentivize). Clearly, the availability of healthy food is also the impetus behind Speaker Quinn's greenmarket proposal. As we have already argued, there is a better policy approach to address this problem: the building of more supermarket outlets and the encouragement of the existing store owners to work to provide healthier eating options.
Which is also a potential role for the nascent Health Corps that Rivera has been championing. The HC, situated currently in five city high schools, could potentially play an important educational and activist role in the community. As crucial as availability of healthy food options certainly is, a sea change in local attitudes and behavior must also be effected if the folks are going to avail themselves of these alternatives.