New York City's Board of Health wants to make you pay attention to how much salt is in your food, or at least try. In a recent effort to pursue healthier eating, the city recently unanimously agreed on a regulation to require several chain restaurants to put labels on items that are heavy in sodium.
But that doesn’t matter much for communities where supermarkets are scarce and fast food restaurants are the only option. Residents of low income neighborhoods that have limited access to grocery stores and fresh produce are starting to consider opportunities to take food justice and health initiatives into their own hands.
"We live in one of the poorest areas nationwide," said Flor Henderson, coordinator of the newly formed food studies program at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. "It's an area that has been basically abandoned."
Areas with limited access to fresh healthy foods, often called food deserts, correspond to areas with populations of NYC residents suffering from higher rates of obesity and diabetes according to a study conducted in 2011.
Mott Haven and Melrose are two examples of neighborhoods in the South Bronx where access to fresh produce is limited. Compared to the rest of the city these areas rank 7th for percentage of adults with diabetes and 8th for percentage of obese adults according to the most recent release of NYC Health Profiles. The trend is similar among other food desert areas, including East New York in Brooklyn, Central and East Harlem in Manhattan, and Jamaica in Queens.
Health experts say low access to healthy produce isn’t the main factor when it comes to community health concerns. Other constraints could include cooking skills and free time, but limited availability is still an important consideration.
"I feel like in my read of the literature the case to be made for access to healthy food, for example, access to supermarkets, being related to better diets, I feel like that case has a lot of support," Gina Lovasi, co-director of Epidemiology and Population Health at Columbia University.
Over the past several years the city has pushed various initiatives and policy efforts to establish a food justice movement and improve health and nutrition for all residents.
In 2009, the city launched the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or FRESH, initiative to offer incentives for food store developers and operators to open stores in the low income communities currently lacking in access to healthy produce.
Although public health professionals in the city have tried to strengthen food policy, there has been little conversation between communities and these professionals about their actual concerns and desires.
According to another 2011 study focused on the efforts of the food movement, "savvy public health leaders listen to their constituents and encourage rather than stifle public debate."
The food studies program at Hostos Community College, establishing it’s first year, is taking efforts to equip students in the South Bronx with knowledge of food policy and nutrition to serve their community directly. Henderson says the students became interested in the program when they started to question why they are recommended to eat healthy yet have limited access around the campus for produce options.
Sierra Lebron is a dental hygiene major at Hostos College who is also involved with the new program. Lebron says she's a lonley but loving vegan living in a fast food nation.
"There is a Target near the school where I can sometimes get fruits, but the fruits are not in good condition all the time." said Lebron. "I'm in this program because the community and the world need strong people to speak up about the injustice that we face when we have to get something to eat."
If you want to find out just how big the difference in access is, check out the calculator below.
Note: Supermarkets were found using the NYS Dept. of Agriculture Retail Food List dataset. The data was cleaned using the guidelines established by the FRESH initiative. Establishments need to be visited to further verify that all FRESH are being met. Food desert areas were defined by areas receiving FRESH zoning incentives.