Federal officials are opening up a new front in the fight against obesity: access. Heading the charge is Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, representing parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Lower East Side, who plans this week to introduce the Bodegas as Catalysts for Healthy Living Act. If enacted, it would mark the first federal effort to target the issue of food quality and availability in the nation’s low-income communities.

The bill, which is also backed by the Washington Heights-based Bodega Association of the United States and local public health officials, would create a federal program offering grants through the Small Business Administration to help bodegas and corner stores stock and maintain fresh fruits and vegetables, along with low-fat milk and real fruit juices. Stocking produce in corner markets can often be tricky, because it requires far more upkeep than heavily processed foods with long shelf lives, a requirement difficult to meet with limited staff and resources.

“Bodegas are small mom and pop shops operated by one or two people,” said Jose Fernandez, president of the Bodega Association. To stay afloat, storeowners have to stock products that will stay fresh until sold — like most junk food.

Proponents of the bill see it as not just a health issue, but a budgetary one as well. At $3.5 billion per year, New York state’s Medicaid program spends more on obesity-related problems than any other state in the country, according to a 2004 Center for Disease Control study. “We simply cannot afford to sit by and avoid cost-effective, preventative measures,” said Rep. Velázquez.

The bill has one co-sponsor, Rep. Major Owens, also from Brooklyn. Backers admit there’s little chance for the bill to move forward immediately, but think the midterm elections could change that. “We’re planting the seeds now,” said Julie Okoniewski, Velázquez’s legislative director.

It’s a hope that even bodega owners share. “Bodegas are the only one-stop shop for local residents, so it’s important for them to carry healthy food,” said Fernandez. That’s particularly true in Velázquez’s home district. Earlier this year, city health researchers released a study finding that eight in 10 food stores in the Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods in Brooklyn are bodegas.

The study also found that not only were prices higher in bodegas than supermarkets, but fresh produce was available at less than one-third of them, compared to more than 90 percent of supermarkets. The addition of a supermarket to a census tract can increase fruit and vegetable consumption by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2002 American Journal of Public Health study. [07/24/06]