Jicama in the 'hood

Legislators and local food activists are fighting to get healthy, organic food into the nation's poorest neighborhoods.

Published August 2, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Amid a crowd of New York City public high-schoolers, Antonio Mayers, 16, is trying -- with modest success -- to wrap his head around the idea of freezing a mango pit for later consumption as a popsicle.

"How long you put it in the freezer?"

"Just until it gets, you know, frozen. It's really good," says Michael Welch. Welch is leading Mayers and his tittering cohorts in a cooking class coordinated by EatWise, a New York nutrition and food systems education group. As simple as that mango may seem, for Welch's students -- and their counterparts in the many high-density, urban areas around the country that researchers have deemed "food deserts" for their lack of grocery stores -- fresh fruit, indeed fresh anything, is largely inaccessible. Welch has carefully selected today's dishes with his students in mind, a calculation that has resulted in a menu featuring both local sweet corn and Philadelphia Cream Cheese. "Not all these kids can afford the high-end and organic stuff," explains Welch. "I wanted it to be something they can find in their neighborhood." Continuing his presentation, Welch shows his skeptical students some of the less-familiar ingredients they'll be using: jicama, raw corn sliced from the cob, honey. Much of the produce was grown in local dirt, a particularly relevant fact given the venue: Stone Barns, the Westchester County estate James Beard-recognized chef Dan Barber has transformed into a working sustainable farm, education center and restaurant. The site is just 30 miles from Manhattan, but the combination of fine dining at Blue Hill Stone Barns restaurant and the rolling farm it overlooks are a world away from the concrete grid where Welch's students buy their groceries. Indeed, Stone Barns is to New York foodies what Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard and Chez Panisse are to food-conscious San Franciscans: an institution committed to wholesome food and local ingredients, set on convincing the next generation to avoid industrial food in its favor. It's a lofty goal, one routinely -- and effortlessly -- sold to food acolytes, but today Stone Barns is aiming at a different audience.

There is, it appears, something lost in the translation -- and the lesson this July Saturday hits a few snags. After Welch's class has scarfed down the results of the recipes they've prepared -- the fruit salad and tuna wraps are deemed "slammin!" but the three-bean salad met with skepticism -- the group reassembles to offer their opinions.

"What did you like about the food? What do you like to make in the summer?" he asks the crowd.

"Pop tarts!" yells out Stephen Colsn, 14.

Ebony Williams, 18, disagrees. "Toaster strudels!"

"I like those!" says Colsn.

While teens' taste for sugary junk is nothing new, in this case, the kids are motivated by more than just an insatiable sweet tooth. While Colsn says he understands the importance of local food, and that he should eat more vegetables, he's quick to note that it's also easier said than done near his home in Harlem.

"At the Garden of Eden, everything is maintained," he says, referring to an immaculate, upscale grocery a 15-minute walk from his apartment. "But sometimes it costs more money. I just go to the bodega or the corner store."

Colsn might not know it, but he's just expressed one of the most salient critiques of the earnest, though sometimes elitist, slow food movement typified by Barber, Waters and their ilk: For most Americans eating healthfully is not a question of finding locally grown, organic apples. It's a question of finding an edible apple near their homes, period.

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The sheer lack of quality food in low-income neighborhoods is bringing some unlikely colleagues to the foodie pioneers' table. Spurred by concerns equal parts public health and fiscal prudence, a burgeoning movement of politicians, lawyers and advocates -- and the occasional retail developer or small business owner -- is leading a charge to improve access to better food among the nation's poor. In doing so, they are infusing public policy with a notion traditionally considered a luxury: That fresher, higher-quality food is worth some trouble.

In an effort to bring the message home, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., last week introduced in the House the Bodegas as Catalysts for Healthy Living Act. Velazquez was spurred on by dramatically high rates of obesity and diabetes in her New York district, and her legislation, if enacted, would create a grants program designed to help small stores stock healthier food like fresh produce and low-fat milk, market it aggressively, and supplement their work by partnering with local health groups. The bodega bill marks the first federal effort around issues of structural access, but Pennsylvania has been testing the local waters for a while. In 2004, Gov. Ed Rendell established a state program to encourage the development of supermarkets in low-income areas found to be lacking them; since its inception, the program has spawned seven new grocers and helped four existing ones stock healthier options.

These formal legislative efforts represent the beginning of a shift from questions of consumption -- prescribing certain foods while proscribing others -- to access. As such, they also form the top tier of a vast and uncoordinated campaign to get healthy food to the nation's poor neighborhoods. Some efforts garner ridicule, as has an initiative by New York City Council member Joel Rivera to limit the density of fast food restaurants. Other projects focus on raising fresh produce right in the neighborhoods, as did the South Central Urban Farm in Los Angeles until its bulldozing a few months ago. Still others focus on retail. Brooklyn, N.Y., will soon supplement the nationally known Park Slope Food Coop -- sometimes derided as a yuppie magnet -- with a similar enterprise in East New York, a venture motivated by concerns over that low-income community's high rates of obesity and diabetes.

If using bodegas for health promotion sounds far-fetched, store owners and public health experts are betting they can prove you wrong. Velazquez's bill has backing from the Bodega Association of the United States, and was developed partly in response to recommendations from the New York City health department. What's more, store owners like Christian Diaz, a Bushwick, Brooklyn, bodeguero, are coming around to the cause, eyeing health food and fresh produce as a new market opportunity. When Diaz opened his bodega 18 months ago, he started out stocking mostly whole milk, but soon ramped up his low-fat options.

"I was only bringing in, like, two gallons" of low-fat milk at first, says Diaz. "Now I'm carrying a case and a half. Little by little, people are starting to get more oriented on the low-fat products." What's more, he's eager to start carrying quality fruits and vegetables, a service offered by less than one-third of the neighborhood's bodegas, according to a recent health department study. (The same research also found that eight in 10 of the neighborhood's food stores are bodegas.) Diaz initially explored the idea of stocking fresh fruits and vegetables, and then largely jettisoned it once he researched refrigerator costs. "The reason I put 'market' on the name of the business is I wanted to put in a fruit market," says Diaz. "People do come in and ask for it."

Part of the inspiration for legislation like the bodega bill comes from a small but growing body of research suggesting a link between poor access to food and higher rates of obesity and related conditions like diabetes and heart disease. "You can't choose healthy food if you don't have access to it," says Mari Gallagher, a national expert on local markets and community development who authored a recent report on "food deserts" -- areas with no food stores or ones a distance away -- in Chicago.

Indeed, for all the ruminations on the perils of the modern food economy -- from bestselling author Michael Pollan's disturbing finding in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that industrial corn so thoroughly dominates the American diet that we are "corn chips with legs," to the widely published statistic from Iowa State University that most food travels 1,500 miles to make it onto American store shelves -- a more rudimentary concern has begun to present itself: Proximity to plate. Even when Gallagher's researchers controlled for income and education, rates of obesity rose as the distance to the nearest grocery store increased. "We did find a real relationship between obesity and grocery store placement," she says. There's also reason to believe that better access helps foster better diet. For every additional supermarket in a census tract, for example, fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to increase by as much as 32 percent, according to a 2001 American Journal of Public Health study.

Food deserts are almost exclusively found in poor, urban areas, where premier retailers -- particularly shops like Whole Foods, which have based their business on charging a premium price for premium foods -- often fear to tread. Even when large retailers are eyeing an urban locale, nuts-and-bolts concerns such as complex zoning laws, high land prices and few available lots often pose difficulties for companies that are used to dealing with the suburbs. That leaves small-scale corner stores to fill the gap -- and residents with fewer food choices and higher grocery bills. Low-income communities have an average of one midsize or large grocery store per 80,000 residents, compared to one for every 25,000 residents in wealthy communities, according to a recent Brookings Institution survey of 10 American cities. The same study also found prices to be higher in small stores; a survey of 132 food items found that over two-thirds were more expensive at small grocers than at supermarkets. And even the simple fact of higher cost may lead to health problems. A Rand Corporation study published last year linked higher prices for produce with greater rates of obesity.

But obesity itself comes with a hefty price tag -- yet another reason legislators are joining the food fray. Annual spending on obesity-related health problems in America in 1998 was an estimated $80 billion, according to the journal Health Affairs, and likely has risen since. Nor does it appear that it will abate soon; ever since the surgeon general declared an obesity epidemic in 2001, the bad news just keeps coming: Obesity could soon overtake tobacco as the No. 1 killer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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Well before food access was making it onto the legislative roster, getting good food in the 'hood was being tackled by a scrappier set of operatives: the people who lived there. "We were observing local health problems in the community related to diet," says Brahm Ahmadi, co-director of the People's Grocery, a West Oakland, Calif., food justice group. "The initial goal was to create a worker-owned community grocery store and education center."

When Ahmadi and his two co-founders confronted a steep learning curve -- none of them had run a business before -- they scaled back the retail component to a "mobile market." They bought a milk truck, then outfitted it with a booming sound system, a graffiti paint job and a load of fresh produce; it has since become a community fixture. This year, they're hoping to get a "Soul Box" program off the ground, where they'll hook food stamp recipients into community supported agriculture clubs, groups that partner with a farmer who delivers fresh produce weekly in exchange for payment upfront. Next year, the group hopes to finally open a store.

Though it would be easy to rest on its laurels, the growing organization -- it now boasts five full-time positions -- is thinking bigger than just one truck and one store. People's Grocery devotees pride themselves on addressing a complex, interconnected set of food-related issues. At the top of the list is advocating and practicing sustainable agriculture and urban farming, with a goal of creating a locally based food system, ideally while generating jobs and stability in their communities.

All of which situates groups like People's Grocery not in opposition to the affluent, consumer-based charge led by Pollan and Waters, but rather as the grass-roots flip side of it. "They've been pioneering quite a bit," Ahmadi says of the food luminaries. "But that hasn't quite trickled down to the challenges of healthy food in West Oakland." Which, he adds, is precisely where groups like his come in. "A lot of our current planning is geared toward a long-term vision of placing people into food companies to bridge that divide," he says, emphasizing that organic companies have traditionally aimed for an up-market consumer.

They may have their work cut out for them. Back at Stone Barns, the cooking class has finished and the students have reassembled en masse. Animated chatter bubbles through the room -- there's a general distaste for the haute cuisine sandwiches dispensed at lunchtime by farm staff, and talk of a McDonald's run back in the city is making the rounds -- and then a dozen kids take center stage at the front of the room.

The presenters are summer interns and volunteers with EatWise, the nutrition education group that has brought everyone to Stone Barns today. Joelina Peralta, a feisty 18-year-old from Bushwick with a mane of curls sprouting from a ponytail, starts the group off with a quick go-around about the benefits of eating locally. Everyone seems to grasp that local food is fresher, better for the environment and helps the New York economy -- an achievement that would make even the most dyed-in-the-wool foodie swoon. Then Victor Lopez, a diminutive 15-year-old from East New York, sporting bling in both ears, takes over.

"Have any of you heard about a farmers market?" He pauses for effect. "Not too much? That's OK, that's why I'm here." With a magician's showmanship, Victor announces that they will be having a taste test and unveils two paper plates of diced tomato, one from a farmers market, the other a grocery store.

To a trained eye, it's easy to pick out the farm-fresh tomato's bright red, juicy flesh, and cast a disdainful look at the pinkish, mealy option on the other plate. Yet, for most of the kids gathered, this is their first encounter with taking a critical look at food. When the three volunteers come up for a taste, results are mixed. Two choose the farm tomato, to the delight of the EatWise interns -- but Cesar Pimentel, a lanky 21-year-old youth program staffer who brought several students with him, shakes his head. "I like that one!" he says. "The grocery store!"

The scene hits home for Joelina, who says she's gone through a metamorphosis since joining EatWise. "They just grew up with that type of food, so they are used to that," she says of her fast-food-loving peers, adding that before she started working with EatWise she was the same. Now, she's trying to eat well, but she's finding it rough going in Bushwick. "I was in the supermarket not too long ago; I was trying to buy some organic stuff and I couldn't find anything at all," she explains. Another time, she stopped at the corner store and picked up some tomatoes, only to find that her palate had begun to outstrip her budget. "It was like, it had no flavor at all," she groans. "It was disgusting."

By Tracie McMillan

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