It’s a boiling July morning in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Terry “Speedo” Moore, 43, is stopping in at the corner store for some chips and cigarettes. Compact, muscular and sporting a gold tooth, Moore’s appearance suggests a rocky life–and certainly not one where fine food is a primary concern. Until he starts talking.
Still recovering from a stomach infection, Moore says the illness pushed him to plan his meals more carefully. “I eat good at home. I don’t buy a lot of frozen food, and I eat a lot of rice and beans,” he says. Yet fruits and vegetables tend to fall low on his list, he says, because decent ones are hard to come by. “Quite a few bodegas don’t keep their food fresh,” he says, leaning against a store window plastered with ads. “This is a grimy neighborhood. We could use some nice, fresh produce over here.”
The city’s health department is beginning to agree. Obesity rates in the city’s poor neighborhoods are staggering, and coincide with high incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Looking for ways to counter those stats, the department of health is considering a radical solution: Transform bodegas–purveyors of the high calorie, low nutrition foods that have been faulted for fueling the obesity epidemic–into sources of healthier foods like whole grain breads, low-fat milk, and fresh produce.
The effort is still in the early stages of discussion, but it might be easier than adding supermarkets to New York’s densely built neighborhoods, and could draw on the experience of earlier campaigns, like one to reduce teen smoking. Health officials are also taking a look at the grassroots work of community health activists, hoping to kick it up a notch. Says Lynn Silver, an assistant commissioner at the health department, “Our real challenge is trying to take this to a large scale.”
New York City’s poorest neighborhoods are on the frontlines in the battle of the bulge. In central Brooklyn, which includes Moore’s home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, 30 percent of residents are obese, compared to 18 percent citywide; only East New York is fatter. Though the health department first focused on encouraging regular exercise, it’s now casting a wider net, taking on the issue of what kinds of food are available in the city’s least-healthy neighborhoods.
“The city has made a huge step,” by turning to issues of food access, says Charmaine Ruddock, project director at Bronx Health Reach (BHR), a program of the federally funded Institute for Urban Family Health. A community-based health education program, BHR started conducting nutrition workshops with elementary school students several years ago. “The parents said to us, ‘You’re doing all this education. Have you taken a look at what’s on the shelves where we have to buy our food?’ And they were right,” recalls Ruddock. Her group then surveyed the contents of local stores and found that less than half of bodegas carried fresh produce and less than one-third sold milk. As City Limits went to press, Ruddock’s group was starting a canvass of bodega owners to gauge interest in stocking low-fat milk and healthy snack foods.
When the health department studied Bed-Stuy, they got similar results. An August study found that the neighborhood has a dozen supermarkets competing against 176 bodegas. Most striking of all, only about one-fourth of bodegas stocked apples, oranges and bananas–compared to four out of five supermarkets. The availability of quality food has big implications for what residents eat: For every additional supermarket located in a census tract, for example, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2002 American Journal of Public Health report.
That makes a compelling argument for encouraging local corner stores to stock produce and other healthier foods, says Regina Graham, an epidemiologist with the Brooklyn District Public Health Office, and author of the August study. “Bodegas are local and accessible,” she explains. “I think that bodegas would be the way to go.”
Before the city can transform bodegas, however, it needs to convince owners like Hakim Aldaylam that stocking healthier food makes fiscal sense. His Aldaylam Deli on Nostrand Avenue, for example, already sells standard produce: bananas, potatoes, onions, lettuce, tomatoes and lemons. But that’s about as far as he’s willing to go. “We tried three years ago to get apples and oranges. It didn’t sell, so we didn’t keep it,” says Aldaylam.
What does sell in his deli isn’t likely to please health officials. “Soda, juice, deli stuff, cookies, beer, water,” lists the Yemeni immigrant. “You sell that every day. That’s what this neighborhood buys.” Besides, he adds, produce requires far more care. “It takes an extra worker,” says Aldaylam. “It’s too much headache for me.”
That could prove to be a common response, cautions Carol Horowitz, an assistant professor in health policy at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Last fall, Horowitz published an in-depth study of the kinds of food available in East Harlem. When researchers went to the area’s 151 bodegas, only 13 carried all five of the diabetes-friendly foods (high-fiber bread, low-fat milk, fresh fruit, vegetables, and diet soda) they were looking for. “These are small business owners who are not making a huge profit,” says Horowitz, adding that most bodegas buy their supplies from central distributors, most of whom do not stock healthy foods. “If we’re thinking they’re going to go out of their way, maybe spend more, for something that may not help them make a better living, that’s asking a lot,” she says.
Yet past efforts to engage bodegas in health promotion have been promising, says Darlyn Portes, marketing director of the Washington Heights-based Bodega Association of the United States, which represents more than 7,000 bodega owners nationwide. Previous health initiatives at bodegas have focused on more tangible threats: lead-tainted candy, contaminated cheese, cigarette sales to minors.
Those successful campaigns, says Portes, did put health before immediate profit–but some, like the effort to stop selling cigarettes to minors, threatened hefty government fines if store owners didn’t comply.
Adding produce may be a tougher sell, but not impossible, says Ruddock. Researchers found that when they brought up health, the owners paid attention. “Many had an interest because diabetes was something they had in their family, or they themselves had,” says Ruddock.
Though the Bodega Association has met with the health department, the conversation is still in very early stages. And thus far, owners are wary. When Portes announced the project at a membership meeting this spring, he says, only about five of the 110 store owners asked for more information.
Local shoppers hope more will eventually take the bait. “The produce thing, I think that helps everybody,” says Moore, taking refuge from the heat inside a bodega up the block from Aldaylam’s. “‘Cause then you wouldn’t have to go to Key Food, walk 10 blocks. A lot of folks eat home cooking. It would change a lot.”
SIDEBAR: Produce-Ing Results In Oakland
When Nathan Cheng approached corner store owners in Oakland, California about carrying fresh produce in their stores, he knew that the bottom line would be king. So he tried to appeal to their business sense. “If they can expand their produce line, people that normally wouldn’t shop there would at least check it out,” says Cheng.
Then a consultant for California Food Policy Associates, a statewide advocacy group, Cheng worked one-on-one with store owners to make the transition, one of the first such initiatives in the country. It wasn’t easy. “It is a whole handling process,” says Cheng. They “need to know they’re going to be coddled from beginning to end.”
But if produce isn’t likely to dramatically increase profit, according to Cheng, it’s not likely to hurt it, either. “Our culture is so based on convenience. If [store owners offered] the convenience of a more extensive produce line, they could have fruits and vegetables on a level that their community could support,” says Cheng, who’s since consulted with several county health departments about replicating the model elsewhere.
Still, it’s not as easy as it looks, says Mark Woo, a policy analyst at the Alameda County Health Department, who oversaw Cheng’s work. “Initially, it seemed to generally go well,” he says. But once the personal help stopped, says Woo, “we found that the effect faded.” The county is currently evaluating the approach to determine what would give it more staying power.
School Market, Cheng’s first convert, reveals the program’s strengths and weaknesses. Located near a grocery store, the shop originally specialized in liquor and soda–and carried only the most basic produce: potatoes, tomatoes and onions. With Cheng’s help, the market began to experiment with a wider range of produce, settling on a modest array of peppers, greens and fruit. Still, he considers it an improvement to the store. “It’s been doing kind of good,” says store manager Hamdi Ahmed. “It’s a convenience.”