Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eating Healthy in the Neighborhood

Once again the Gotham Gazette does a great service by focusing some attention on the problems of food access in low income areas of the city. As authors Josh Brustein and Gail Robinson point out there is a correlation between the high rates of obesity heart disease and diabetes in New York and the relative lack of good food options in some neighborhoods.. As they say, "These problems are particularly severe in low-income neighborhoods. The disparity of access to affordable, healthy food between New York's wealthy and poor neighborhoods is regularly cited as a factor..."

But how much of a factor is not something that anyone really has gotten a handle on. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a real good understanding of the supermarket industry in the city. Some of this stems from a continuation of the arguments that were made in the mid-nineties over the building of a Pathmark supermarket in East Harlem and Mayor Guiliani's mega store proposal.

According to the proponents of these two initiatives there were two unassailable truths: (1) low income neighborhoods had no real good quality supermarkets; and (2) the markets that they did have made "the poor pay more for less." Of course, this was the so-called study that was done by Mark Green's Department of Consumer Affairs that glossed over two even more salient facts: (1) prices of groceries in low income areas were lower than in the higher rent districts of wealthy Manhattan; and (2) there had been a veritable explosion of new supermarket expansion in many poorer neighborhoods of the city, an event that went unexamined in the face of all the hyperbolic victimology from some food advocates.

This mindset yields the following comment from Dr. Frieden, "It is not possible easily to get a healthy diet in many of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City." This is simply not true. As the Gazette story points out, bodegas are unlikely to carry fresh produce or things like low-fat milk but, "...almost every supermarket carries apples, oranges and bananas...supermarkets are also three times more likely to carry reduced fat milk." The story than goes on to say something that is so completely false that we'd have to question the entire underlying premise of the piece if we didn't know the underlying facts better.

Citing a study done by JC Dwyer the Gazette says, "Food stores generally lose money by carrying fresh fruit and vegetables, but supermarkets carry such products to attract customers." This is flatly untrue. Fresh produce is not a loss leader but a profit center. The problem lies with the demand side of the equation; people in low income areas are not buying the produce with the same degree of frequency that they are in wealthier areas. Supermarkets in the ghettos would love to reverse this trend and it would make a great deal of sense to develop a public-private partnership in this regard to encourage healthier buying patterns.

All of which doesn't mean that there is more that can be done to insure that greater access is made available. We continue to emphasize the need to incentivize further supermarket development in certain areas of the city that could use more stores and encourage advocates to work with the industry to accomplish this task.