Grocery shopping at Mango Rico in Corona, Queens after work is a dizzying feat. The narrow doorway is crowded with customers edging past each other in both directions. Their bags bump into the boxes out front stacked with fruits and vegetables, sending precious produce spilling to the floor and rolling into the gutter. /
A tight squeeze at the local grocer is a common sight in the community. There’s only 83 square feet of supermarket space per 100 people in community board 4, which extends from Corona to Elmhurst. The city average is 177 square feet per 100 residents. Queens averages 180 square feet per 100 residents.
The New York City Health Department launched the Food Resource Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) initiative in 2009 to incentivize grocers to expand to 5,000 or more square feet and dedicate more space to produce. The offers financial incentives like low-cost energy, a lowered real estate tax for 25 years and waiving of up to $100,000 in sales tax for construction to build in areas indentified by the city as being in need of healthier options.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Alexina Cather, deputy director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College. “The most success comes from both the bottom up to top down. That includes having policy that supports healthy living and buy in from community organizations, parents and grocery stores. Everyone needs to come together.”
People who live in communities where FRESH supermarkets have been implemented have bought more fresh fruits and vegetables initially, but the relationship between access and diet is more complex. The overall consumption of fruits and vegetables has barely budged, according to the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
“Especially in low income neighborhoods, access is not only factor. There’s poverty, the cost of food, cooking skills to prepare fresh food, time,” said Cather. “What good is a grocery store if someone doesn’t know how to cook it or doesn’t have the right tools?”
The health department began including a new measure of neighborhood health in its annual surveys that shows a community’s ratio of grocery stores to bodegas. The higher the ratio of bodegas to stores, the less healthy the neighborhood is, according to guidelines in the reports. Corona and Elmhurst have 16 bodegas per grocery store, which places it as moderately unhealthy among all neighborhoods.
But a bodega or a smaller grocery store doesn’t necessarily correlate to poor community health. The city’s Adopt-A-Bodega program has allowed residents to work with their local bodegas to bring healthy options in. What’s complicated to crack are eating habits.
“There are things about food we’ve learned growing up and now we have to unravel all that,” said Sabrina Baronberg, co-founder of the Healthy Food Retail Action Network.
A TV dinner, for instance, was once a symbol of prosperity and advancement in food preparation, she said, until people focused on the meal’s. Its revelry had to be undone once its high levels of fat and sodium. were better understood. Similarly it is difficult to undo someone’s attachment to the affordable sandwich and chips combo at a bodega.
Combating bad eating habits might mean shock ads like those used in anti-tobacco campaigns, community engagement like community gardens or cooking demonstrations and education about the marketing strategies behind certain foods.
“Exposing and empowering people to show they are being influenced so heavily by marketing can help them view their choices differently while still feeling like they have a choice,” said Baronberg. “Some people might get angry when they realize. People have different triggers and may not want to spend their money on these products.”
Community board members say that the access gap is closing — but food choices among residents are a significant hurdle to community health in part because of a high concentration of fast food options.
Within a two-block radius of Mango Rico there is a McDonald’s, Burger King, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen and Taco Bell.
“It’s faster and cheaper to stop at McDonald’s or buy soda at a bodega than it might be to buy fresh food, take it home and cook it,” said Ashley Reed, chair of community board 4’s health committee.
The community board has made efforts to host multilingual health workshops and bring in age-appropriate activities to the Jackson Heights Farmers Market for the neighborhood’s children; more than 40 percent of the district’s school-age children whom in the encompassing school district are obese. It is crucial that accessible food programs exist in tandem with fresh food programs, according to Baronberg, but insufficient funding, unavailable a lack of sponsors and lack of interest can kill programs that are already in place.
Community grocers also play a role in engaging residents to consume nutritious food: Local stores provide a sense of familiarity that a big box store can’t provide. Cleanliness, friendliness of staff and availability of foods relevant to the racial and ethnic makeup of a community can matter more than a market’s size.
“I usually shop near work,” said Hannah Scholdner, 34, who works in Midtown. “I like to try new ingredients and flavors, spices from other parts of the world, and you can’t find a lot of unique stuff around here.”
In June of last year the New York City Council issued the REFRESH report identifying plans for improvement and expansion — including issues of transparency, to make it easier for an owner to qualify as a FRESH market — and for residents to find those businesses.
CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute suggests a focus on affordability of food and “food gentrification,” where smaller grocers are replaced by chain stores. The city provides tax incentives for small businesses, but temporary funding is seldom enough. When tax breaks and grant money run out, it is easy for stores to return to old practices.
The most pressing need for some residents is simpler.
“Honestly I’d just like a place that has nice produce all of the time and not just when we’re lucky,” Scholdner said.Tags: access, FRESH initiative, grocery store, hunger