Professor Emmett Ryan
5 December 2016
Food Deserts in New York City
Most people have never heard of a ‘food desert'. A ‘food desert' is an environment where access to healthy food is limited. It can be located anywhere. They are most commonly found in cities that do not offer low income members of society supermarkets where they can buy the fresh produce they need. There are many “food deserts” dispersed throughout the country including the five boroughs of New York City. The problem is not only due to food accessibility and the amount of grocery stores, but may be due to people's shopping and eating habits. “The U.S Department of Agriculture has mapped thousands of locations across the country where residents continue to live in low-income, low access areas. Those who live in these areas are often subject to poor diets as a result, and are at a greater risk of becoming obese or developing chronic diseases.”(Corapi) There is also the fact that people cannot afford the nutrient dense food that is better for their overall health. The purpose of this essay is to determine if individuals lack access to nutritious foods or do the areas as a whole. As well as identify the areas suffering from “food deserts” in New York City and the reasons why this keeps occurring.
While walking around New York City you will see many small private owned businesses and bodegas as well as a couple large industrial company supermarkets, which includes Whole Foods or Key Food. There are fewer grocery stores in low-income areas because people assume that low-income areas are less profitable and that there are higher rates of crime leading to more additional costs. Most supermarkets will not open in a specific area without a tax incentive or zoning incentive. A tax incentive is a “deduction, exclusion, or exemption from a tax liability, offered as an enticement to encourage new fresh food markets to open in an area lacking this important amenity.” (Johnson) Incentive zoning allows developers more density in exchange for community improvements. For example, a developer can add 10,000 extra square feet to a residential building in exchange for putting a supermarket on the ground floor. These larger grocery stores have higher prices than the smaller stores. The smaller stores do not have all the fresh produce needed for a healthy diet. Their products usually consist of quick snacks or fast food. Low- income households shop where food prices are lower, when they can. Usually these smaller grocery stores are open later and are more convenient for those who do not have the time to make fresh homemade meals because they either work multiple jobs or they work nights and are unable to be home during important mealtimes. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture It is estimated that 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S population live in a low-income area more than 1 mile from a supermarket. So the lack of transportation and easy accessibility is one of the most important things to take into consideration as to why a “food desert” exists in a specific area.
Something you might notice as you walk through the city is the easy access to fast food. There is a fast food restaurant on almost every block of the city. Most people rather spend 5 dollars on a full meal at McDonalds then go travel to a supermarket, buy an expensive amount of produce that will only make one meal, travel all the way back home, and take the time out of their busy day to cook the meal. A big problem is that people have become reliant on food retailers or fast food restaurants and no longer bother to make their own home cooked meals. Some people think it is just due to laziness but there is more to it. You have to take into consideration the amount of money a family makes, if they own a car or can afford public transportation, and if the supermarket is within an able distance. You also have to consider a persons disability status and work hours.
Location in New York City is a key factor. If you walk down the street in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and then through Coney Island in Brooklyn you would observe a significant difference in your surroundings. “The Upper East side has a median household income of $247,167 while Coney Island made the list of the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn, with a meager median household income of $9,500.”(Gould) Trying to find a commercialized supermarket in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City is almost impossible. The main street that goes throughout all of Coney Island is called Coney Island Avenue. While traveling down it there are plenty of private owned delis and bodegas. It is also extremely simple to find a fast food place to grab a bite to eat. In photograph one below there are two industrialized companies, including Dominoes Pizza and Dunkin Donuts. In photographs two and three there are multiple privately owned grocery shops.
Google Maps 980 Coney Island Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11230
While in the Upper West side you see New York City from a completely different perspective. Almost every store you pass is commercialized because people with privately owned businesses could no longer afford to pay rent in areas like this. “Rent is the biggest expense for bodega owners, and in Manhattan, where limited commercial space creates fierce competition, the commercial rent ceiling keeps getting higher. According to a report from the Real Estate Board of New York, the average commercial rent in Manhattan rose 34 percent from 2004 to 2014.” (Schlossberg) Traveling down Broadway in the Upper West Side you will have a view of multiple organic whole food stores and new supermarkets on almost every block. In the pictures below there is a Fairway Market and a Trader Joe's located on the Upper West Side of New York City.
Google Maps 2127 Broadway and 2073 Broadway New York, NY 10023
New York City has taken some action when it comes to ‘food deserts'. In a recent speech Mayor deBlasio discussed how the city should take action. He stated, “Our neighborhoods must be able to offer access to healthy food, opportunities for physical activity and safe vibrant public spaces.” (Kanno-Youngs, Zolan) This has brought awareness to many people throughout the city. Another well-known health activist, First Lady Michelle Obama, has constantly been seen promoting her “Let's Move! Campaign. Over her time in the White House she has made child health care her biggest focus for change. She has recently convinced Walmart, SuperValu, and Walgreens to open or expand 1,500 grocery stores in food deserts. Around 2 years ago the Farm Bill was passed. “The bill authorized nearly $1 trillion in spending on farming subsidies and nutrition programs, setting the stage for final subsidies and nutrition programs.”(Nixon) It includes cuts to food stamps and income caps on farm subsidies. Food Stamps are part of a program called SNAP. Recently, The Farm Bill cut SNAP spending by 40 billion dollars. “SNAP is designed to make up the difference between the amount of monthly income a household can afford to spend on food (usually estimated to be 30%) and the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet. This is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, the USDA's grocery list of foods that meet the Dietary Guidelines on a budget. Some people say that SNAP benefits aren't large enough to allow participants to purchase nutritious foods; a dollar buys more calories in the candy aisle than it does in the produce section. Others believe that SNAP benefit levels are sufficient, but focus should instead be on nutrition education efforts to help people make healthier choices.” (Butkowski)
Another problem is the existence of “food swamps” which are towns that are filled with unhealthy fast food restaurants and convenience stores and lack healthy produce stores. Fast food is cheaper and does not need to be prepared which adds to its convenience factor. “There is also the advertising factor. Fast-food companies spend about $4.2 billion a year marketing their products as life's ultimate rewards, through saliva-producing ads depicting cheese-and-pepperoni-covered pizzas, juicy double cheeseburgers, and steaming French fries. There are now five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S.”(The Week) Certain zoning laws have been put in place throughout the country in order to limit the amount of fast food restaurants in a specific location. However, that does not necessarily mean that people will choose healthy foods.
Overall it all comes down to the nutrition programs and education for the youth. Without awareness on obesity and diabetes children will not understand the risks they take when they consume unhealthy foods. According to the Wall Street Journal the percentage of adults living with obesity in New York City is about 24 percent and 10 percent with diabetes. “More than 15 million U.S. children live in \"food-insecure\" households having limited access to adequate food and nutrition due to cost, proximity and/or other resources. Low income individuals are at increased risk for both food insecurity and obesity.”(Whitacre) “Food deserts” explain the relationship between hunger, poverty and obesity in low-income communities. Each causes or has an effect on the other.
The obesity and diabetes rates in “food deserts” are significantly higher than those of people living in neighborhoods that do not suffer from food insecurity. According to the New York City Food Counsel “Over the past 20 years, obesity rates in New York City have doubled. Nearly 40 percent of elementary and middle school students 28 percent of high school students, and 67 percent of our adults are overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity are significant risk factors for adult diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. In New York State, $6.1 billion is spent annually fighting diet-related diseases.” (Figueroa, Dunlea) The money that New York City spent on Medicare is about 2.7 million dollars. This money could have been spent on treating people with these conditions could have been spent before the problem escalated in the form of nutrition programs and the expansion of farmers markets.
There are multiple programs that have become affiliated with putting an end to “food deserts” in New York City. Some of these include City Harvest and Growing Up New York City. City Harvest is a program that provides a service that people can rely on. There goal is to bring families that can not afford or do not have fresh produce available to them the products they need They have mobile markets in every borough that give out food almost all year long. These mobile markets contain farm fresh products that were donated or not up to the standard to be sold in a grocery store. Without City Harvest they most likely would not be able to afford these products in a grocery store. Volunteers hand out multiple fresh produce in food insecure areas throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Growing Up in NYC is a brand new program that was set up to support the growth and development of the youth in New York City from ages 0 to 12. The program takes the child's age into consideration and provides events and programs they may attend including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. These programs teach the children healthy living and eating. The best part is they are free and available to anyone. The purpose of this program is to help children form habits healthy wellness If more people were aware of these programs there would be a substantial decrease in the amount of obese children and children with diabetes in New York City. You can see advertisements for these programs on any subway cart or city bus. Additional ways of spreading the word are necessary. Programs like Growing Up in NYC should be required in the New York City public school system. The current requirements are obviously not enough.
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