Monday, May 04, 2009

Fat Heads

Breaking News! Harlem has more fast food joints than other neighborhoods-and Scott Stringer has a plan to rectify this imbalance: "Two-thirds of East Harlem residents are obese -- and surprise, surprise, the neighborhood has four junk-food outlets for every healthier one, officials said yesterday. By contrast, the neighboring Upper East Side, with an obesity rate of 36 percent, has just two fattening food options per healthy option, according to the first "FoodStat" survey conducted by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office."

Why "Foodstat?" Well, because: "CompStat changed policing because we knew where the problems were. We are hoping FoodStat will do the same thing," said Stringer, referring to the NYPD's crime tracking system. "This is our way of using the same principles to fight crime to fight unhealthy eating."

Might be two totally different phenomena, Scott. Stopping criminals is not the same as getting folks to eat healthier-one involves force; the other persuasion and education, but, hey, it does sound good to look tough in the face of fast foods, doesn't it? But what can the government do? According to Stringer: "Stringer, speaking in front of an East Harlem Kentucky Fried Chicken, said the data should be used to identify areas where there's a dearth of healthy options, then give businesses looking to fill that void tax breaks, loans and other incentives."

Now in our view, giving small business loans to anyone who qualifies is generally a good thing-but certainly no panacea when the cost of doing business is so high for all neighborhood retailers. And if Stringer wants to create "Food Enterprise Zones," than the way to incentivize, is to reduce the taxes and regulations for healthier food retailers-including, of course, the supermarkets that are disappearing from areas just like the one that Stringer highlights here.

But we need to understand, at the same time, that the field of dreams theory-the one that was used for the failed veggie cart experiment-will not create the demand for better food choices. That still has to come form the people themselves; something that our health commissioner has told us is too hard to accomplish. Maybe so, but that's where we need to start if we're going to see a change in the restaurant landscape of poorer neighborhoods.