As the school day ends, students from the Academy of Mount Saint Ursula in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx walk down the hilly north edge of their campus and go their separate ways. Some head home while others stay and congregate in the vast array of fast food restaurants and bodegas surrounding the school. Those walking east along Bedford Park Boulevard will encounter a pizzeria and Chinese restaurant, then a taco place and a fried-chicken joint on Webster Avenue. Others who head west up 198th Street will pass My Place Family Pizza, Kings Fried Chicken and Pizza, a couple delis and a place called Hong Kong Kitchen.
There is also a farmers market on Wednesdays at the Botanical Garden a little farther down the road from the school. No one goes there. Across busy Webster Avenue and a parking lot is a Pioneer Supermarket where healthier options are on offer, but there are few takers. “Healthy foods are less appealing to me than junk food,” one student admitted. “I’d rather waste my money on junk food that I can afford than healthier foods I don’t like and can’t afford.”
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) food deserts are “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” New York City is one of the top ten food deserts in America and the Bronx has the highest obesity rate and is generally considered the unhealthiest borough in NYC. Recent studies have shown that there is a relation between food deserts and the increasing obesity rates especially in adolescents.
When city statistics break New York into regions known as united hospital fund neighborhoods, the area known as Fordham/Bronx Park East, which encompasses Mount St. Ursula and a swath of the north central Bronx from Woodlawn Cemetery south to Belmont and from Sedgwick Avenue east to Bronxwood Avenue, is among the least heathy. In 2012, 69.1 percent of the population was overweight or obese, second highest in the city. That same year, 14.6 percent of residents reported having diabetes, one of the highest rates in town.
Obesity is defined as having a bodyweight that is at least 20 percent higher than it should be. A major part of fighting obesity in adolescents is making sure they have access to healthy, affordable fresh foods.
A visit to several high schools in the Fordham/Bronx Park East area illustrated just how much access kids have to unhealthy food, and vice versa.
When kids leave school they are usually hungry and snack on the nearest available food. This makes the location of where certain foods are placed crucial. Around the Dewitt Clinton High School there are fast food chains like McDonalds, Dunkin Doughnuts, and Subways. Near the High School of American Studies at Lehman College students have access to a doughnut shop, a couple of cafes, a Chinese Restaurant, and a couple of delis.
It isn’t like kids don’t have other choices. Near these schools there were four working green cart vendors in walking distance. Many adults stopped to buy some fruits and vegetables while most teens walked by.
And healthier options are usually available in school lunches. But a student who attends the Bronx High School of Law and Common Service told City Limits that the food served in the cafeteria “has healthy stuff with wheat in it and most kids don’t eat that kind of stuff so they skip it and either buy food from the vending machine, bring food or don’t eat at all.”
So, choice is part of the picture, as is money. Many parents will give their kids a certain amount of money each day to pay for their lunch—and bad food is cheaper. “If there [are] not a lot of options in the area the stores know they can charge a lot more for the healthy foods,” says Ilana Strauss Bronheim, a nutritionist at Montefiore’s Comprehensive Family Care Center. Healthy food, she adds, “are much less expensive in parts of Manhattan but charged more up here because there may be less options.”
A locale in Southeast England, Medway, this summer moved to restrict fast-food restaurants from locating near schools. City councilmembers in Austin, Texas, last year considered banning fast-food outlets near schools, but decided against the prohibition.
In 2009, a small group of New York City councilmembers moved to ban new fast-food restaurants from the city altogether. The measure died in committee.
Danielle Cruz is a senior at Mount St. Ursula and was a member of the inaugural City Limits Bronx Investigative Internship program last fall. Funded by Simon Bolivar Foundation and operated out of Hostos Community College, the program continues this winter and spring with a focus on investigating access to exercise.