June 21, 2013

Food Desert

Food Desert = a district with little or no access to large grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet.  Instead of such stores, these districts often contain many fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
Last week I traveled to New York City to attend and present at a SOAR training in East Harlem.  The training was held at the CUNY Hunter Silberman School of Social Work which is a very nice building in a very poor area.  East Harlem is also known as Spanish Harlem and while the area surrounding the Social Work School was decent (118th & 119th and 3rd) the area leading up to the school was very poor, majority ethnic and very underdeveloped.  From my research I learned that many low income areas throughout the city were being gentrified - Brooklyn, Harlem, etc ... but that East Harlem has been mainly been left out of this movement.  It is funny because East Harlem sits adjacent to the Upper Easter Side, one of the most affluent areas in NYC.  My hotel was on the Upper East Side at 92nd and 1st and not 1.5 miles uptown I was in the thick of East Harlem.

Street shot of East Harlem
Here is an interesting video comparing East Harlem to the Upper East Side in terms of accessibility of fresh food.  During my time there I also began to observe the participants that we were training.  I learned that many of them lived and/or worked in or around communities similar to East Harlem, so I started to watch what they ate.  Every morning the vast majority of the participants would bring their breakfast to the training and of all the breakfasts I saw over the two days not one of them could have been considered 'healthy'.  McDonalds was a common theme, as was bacon, egg and cheese on a hard roll, bread with butter, bags of chips and soda.  Now don't get me wrong, this could be by choice but it could also be accessibility.  By the time lunch rolled around I wondered what everyone would eat, no one had packed all or a portion of their lunch (except for me) and everyone went out to find something to eat.  The vast majority of people brought back fast food (McDonalds or Wendy's) and those who didn't brought back deli sandwiches, chips and a soda.
Now when I travel I tend to pack a lot of food, especially if I know I will have access to a fridge and microwave (which I did on this trip).  If I eat out too much when I travel my stomach begins to become upset and I just feel off.  So for this trip I packed oatmeal and granola for the morning, a bag of baby carrots, hard boiled eggs, bananas, peanut butter, a couple slices of wheat bread and Goldfish.  The first day I packed my entire lunch but the second day I needed a sandwich to go along with the rest of my snacks, so I went out in search of just that.  Being in Spanish Harlem there were a lot of Spanish and ethnic restaurants which I'm sure were amazing but many were pricey (at least in terms of what I wanted to spend for lunch) and I wanted something I could easily bring back to the training room (I like to chat with trainees during lunch).  After walking a couple of blocks I quickly realized that my only option was a bodega.  A bodega is defined as  "a small store that stocks a range of everyday items such as groceries, toiletries, alcoholic and soft drinks, tobacco products, and newspapers."   Bodegas may also be referred to as a 'Spanish or Latin grocery store' but the term has become commonly used for any neighbor (often low income and ethnic neighborhood) convenient store that sells a variety of items.
So anyway, my one choice for a sandwich was a bodega that sold everything from deli sandwiches to cat treats to alcohol and hookah!  You can tell by the picture below that the right window of the store is advertising sandwiches, chips and drinks and in the left window there are a number of hookah pipes - talk about one stop shopping!  Anyway, the sandwich I got from the store was very good, but I was rushed and the store was hot, cramped and crowded - not a place that I think anyone would like to spend a great amount of time. 
Bodega window - sandwiches on one side, hookah on the other!
Since this experience and my observations I began to think - I live in an area where I have the option and ability to drive to MANY grocery stores (seriously, we have Price Chopper, Hannaford, Shop Rite, Trader Joes, the Co-Op, a Whole Foods on its way and farmer's markets galore!) and I never have to think twice about where my food (fresh or otherwise) will be coming from.  But then I started to think, what if I were poor, living in a low income area like East Harlem, with very little money to spare and no real time or ability to walk or make my way to another neighbor that may or may not have fresh and readily available food.  It would be really hard!  If this were the case I would probably eat out for most if not all of my meals, the meals would be cheap, probably fast food or come from a store not unlike the one pictured above.  Then I had another thought - learning how to eat well hard!  Calories, portion control, carb/fat/sugar intake and how it all effects the body is difficult to figure out (I haven't even done it!) and even if a person know how to eat well and take care of themselves it doesn't mean that they do it.  And I can only imagine that everything would be 100x more difficult if it had to be done in a food desert.  I have never been in that predicament and hopefully I never will be but just being in the area for a few days gave me a sense of the difficulty that surrounds life in an urban, low income area; and I'm just talking about food here - I haven't even begun to think about all the other things that would make life even more difficult!
Here are two interesting maps I found - the first one shows the 'Supermarket Need Index' you will notice that the Bronx, Washington Heights, Harlem and East Harlem are definitely in need of supermarkets, as are areas of Brooklyn.  The second map shows the prevalence of diabetes and obesity which  is much higher in the aforementioned areas.  I recently read a statistic that said 31% of East Harlem residences are obese(not overweight, obese).


So here's a simple answer to a huge problem ... more supermarkets, more fresh food and more community education!  Easier said than done.

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