Just three months into his term, Mayor Eric Adams has put food policy at the center of his agenda. In February, he held a cooking demonstration while announcing a chain of herbal medicine clinics across the city. He run municipal agencies to serve more plant-based meals a few weeks later.
But at the same time, Adams also called the high price of healthy foods a “myth” and said New Yorkers should buy berries and lentils at their local bodegas.
“I want people to say, ‘What can I eat in my bodega right now? Adams said at the Feb. 7 cooking event. “These black-eyed peas are at your local bodega. Carrots at your local bodega. Bananas, apples at your local bodega. Berries at your local bodega.
In truth, experts say time and money constraints, along with a segregated food system, make it difficult for poorer New Yorkers to follow the kind of diet that helped Adams himself manage his type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease that affects nearly one million people. New Yorker.
Adams acknowledged these disparities, telling reporters, “Healthy food is where The New York Times is at the helm. Unhealthy food is where all the other tabloids are on the stand. The search finds that not having enough nutritious food is linked to the risk of chronic disease, especially for people who are not eligible for food assistance services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Food policy pundits and advocates applaud the mayor’s food agenda, while calling on it to fill the gaps in the city’s disconnected patchwork of nutrition programs. Researchers and advocates interviewed for this story say the city’s efforts to address food insecurity tend to tackle smaller issues, like a lack of grocery stores, rather than broader issues.
“What would it take to make healthy foods as convenient, accessible and affordable as unhealthy foods? asked Nicholas Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. “How can we change the math so that healthy eating is the easy choice rather than the hard choice? We really need to think about policies that would move us in that direction.
Despite Bodega Berries, many New Yorkers rely on smaller markets with few fresh produce options to feed their families, simply because they are more plentiful than full-service grocery stores. According to 2016 state data aggregated by the city’s health department, bodegas outnumber supermarkets by 18 times in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, more than double the gap seen in wealthy neighborhoods.
The disparities are even starker in individual neighborhoods: Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn had a staggering 57 bodegas for every supermarket in 2016. On the Upper West Side, that ratio was just 3 to 1, suggesting better access to a greater quantity of fresh produce. The state health department has since updated its food retailer database, but the city’s health department has not updated its analysis of bodega-to-supermarket ratios. (A map published by the city in 2019 shows similar gaps in overall access to grocery stores.)
“We have plenty of fast food options available, but no access to higher quality products,” said Iyeshima Harris-Ouedraogo, project manager of East New York Farms!, which runs three city farms in the neighborhood, two of which are based in NYCHA developments. In 2016, bodegas outnumbered grocery stores 13 to 1 in East New York and nearby Starrett City.
Since then, the district has acquired a new grocery store thanks to the Expansion of food retail to support health (FRESH) Program, which provides tax and zoning benefits to vendors who build grocery stores in underserved areas. Since the start of the program in 2009, 22 FRESH stores have opened and six more are in the pipeline.
Brooklyn’s Third Community Ward, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, is home to 10 of FRESH’s stores. Other areas, such as southeast Queens, have not attracted a single new store through the program. A second FRESH store in East New York has been approved but is not yet occupied, according to a Map of the city program sites last updated in February 2021.
“He’s done a good job, but he’s limited and hasn’t been able to scale,” Liz Accles, executive director of the local nonprofit Community Food Advocates, said of the program. “There has never been a comprehensive plan regarding access to supermarkets.”
The incentives offered by the program are “modest,” Freudenberg said, so it hasn’t transformed the city’s grocery store landscape.
“Others opened because of perceived market opportunities than those that were subsidized by FRESH,” he added.
In December 2021, the City Council voted to expand FRESH to more neighborhoods, including Far Rockaway in Queens and the North Shore of Staten Island, but without the tax breaks offered in the original coverage area.
Gothamist reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on the status of the program, as well as Adams’ plans to improve grocery store access in the city. Among the many proposals of Adams’s COVID economic recovery plan for the city, there are more opportunities for the legal sale of street food and the redevelopment of the Hunts Point produce market.
Experts warn that food insecurity and chronic disease will not be solved by supermarkets alone.
“It’s not as simple as skydiving into a supermarket with fruits and vegetables,” said Sandra Albrecht, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Groceries must also be reasonably priced, the selection must be culturally appropriate, and the store must align its opening hours with customers’ working hours, she added.
Accles said new supermarket projects should also include well-paying jobs for community members under a community benefits agreement contract.
And while access to well-stocked grocery stores is linked to better nutrition and overall health, it’s only one piece of the city’s food puzzle. In one series policy briefs, City University of New York researchers called on city officials to expand and strengthen programs that make food more affordable for poorer New Yorkers, including SNAP, EBT , health dollars and Get the good stuff. The researchers also suggested the city help bodega owners upgrade their facilities so they can sell fresh food.
Harris-Ouedraogo also called on the mayor to support and promote local farmers’ markets like East New York Farms, which was hit during the pandemic when many customers switched to grocery delivery services like Instacart.
Ultimately, experts and advocates say the biggest barrier to accessing food — and fighting chronic disease in New York City — is income inequality.
“When people have enough income, they use some of it to buy healthier foods,” Freudenberg said.