Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Healthy Food Access

The DOH has just released a report that tells us that it is harder to get healthier food products in Harlem and East Harlem. Frankly, we don't really think that this is news. We have been commenting on this issue for years, and there have been any number of studies that have been done to demonstrate that food options are not as plentiful for low income neighborhoods as they are for higher income communities.

The real issue in all of this is the underlying cause for this disparity. There are some who like to place the blame on the stores themselves; for their failure to adequately stock shelves with healthier foods, opting instead for cheaper unhealthier stuff. Clearly, this perspective fails to understand the demand side of the food equation. As a corollary to this, it also underestimates the role of income.

Taking income first, the Daily News reality series on the food stamp follies of Councilman Eric Goia underscores just how difficult it is for low income people to eat healthier-more expensive!-food items. The lower incomes militate against local groceries carrying healthier, but more expensive foods.

The second feature on the demand curve is that lack of nutritional awareness. Here, the DOH report makes an important contribution. One of its major recommendations is: "Promoting consumer demand for nutritious food at affordable prices through education and social marketing."

This is a point we have been trying to emphasize for years. If consumers begin to become more aware of what's good to eat, they will demand that local stores stock these foods. And guess what? The stores will respond to these new demands, as they do when formerly low income neighborhoods begin to gentrify and consumer preferences change.

So there' good news here and we're ready to praise the department's actions and directions. Beginning with the "Healthy Bodega" initiative DOH has recognized that it needs to partner with the local stores and restaurants; and that partnership needs to encompass an aggressive community nutritional awareness plan. The department's convening of the Harlem Food and Fitness Consortium is a major step forward.

We'd also like to see the Health Corps concept integrated with the department's efforts. Getting young people activated on health is a crucial variable that needs to be brought into play, something that the HC definitely does. The fact that the DOH has already met with the HC folks on the bodega initiative bodes well for the integration of these various good policy approaches.