Monday, February 11, 2008

Green Carts and Bodega Blues

Eating better is related to shopping better, and that's connected to the food distribution system. In New York, it's also connected to where you live and what food stores are close to you. How can we make it easier for people to make better food choices and not be "stuck" with industrial food? In a city where food, and everything else, can be so expensive, how can we encourage low-income families to buy and eat better food?

The Mayor's office is supporting an innovative new program called Green Carts that would issue permits to 1,500 fruit and vegetable vendors to serve low-income neighborhoods. It's a great idea. Yet, this morning, I read a sad article in the Times about the Brooklyn public market that is slated to be shut down by the city. While the photos make it look like a glorified bodega, merchants purport to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to residents of the surrounding low-income neighborhood. Why would the city want to tear this down, when it already recognizes the challenge of getting more and better food options to these very neighborhoods? There seems to be room for improvement in this space, certainly (see slideshow here). But why can't indoor, all-year round food markets be coupled with the movement to increase farmer's markets and pushcarts?

When I studied public health at Columbia University, my department was called Sociomedical Sciences. Most people have no idea what this means. What it means, simply, is this: health is not strictly about biology or even medical care. The health of an individual or a group of people is influenced by culture, economics, politics, and all sorts of "non-medical" factors. For example, people who live in low-income neighborhoods tend to have poor nutrition. Some of this is due to education and cultural preferences, i.e., Papi just likes fried food. Some of it is economic: organic food is expensive and food stamps only go so far.
A recent Health Department study comparing Harlem to the Upper East Side found that supermarkets in Harlem are 30 percent less common, and that only 3 percent of bodegas in Harlem carry leafy green vegetables as compared to 20 percent on the Upper East Side. The Green Cart legislation covers neighborhoods where at least 12 percent of adults reported, in Health Department surveys, that they did not eat any fruits or vegetables on the previous day. Source: NYC.gov
But some of it is political and institutional. People who depend on local bodegas for food can't actually buy low-fat milk because the stores don't carry it. Have you ever tried to find an apple at a bodega? Even if you did, it would probably taste terrible because if it's so old. Any fruit for purchase is likely to be in the sugar-added canned form. I know this because in addition to buying food at the Park Slope Food Coop (an eater's nirvana), I shop at the bodega on my corner in a pinch. These are nights of rice and beans or chesse quesadillas. I can often find very fresh cilantro, though, which indicates that there is some cooking going on in the 'hood.

A return to real food a'la Michael Pollan should not just be for the elite. Many immigrant groups come from a long tradition of home-cooked meals that can be healthier than the starch- and fat-ridden American diet that their local shops support. Without fresh vegetables and other staples to make their home-country cuisine, people chose poor substitutes. The city should be supporting many avenues for fresh food shopping.

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