New York Moves to Grow Markets in Food Deserts

Last year New York spent $6.1 billion on obesity related health problems, the second highest expenditure in the nation. Diabetes rates in the United States have doubled in the last 10 years. While a small percentage of obesity is caused by genetics or health problems such as thyroid or hormonal disorders, most results from unhealthy dietary habits. Particularly in urban areas, unhealthy diets can result from or be exacerbated by 'food deserts.' These are areas, usually low-income neighborhoods, that lack grocery stores selling affordable, healthy food.

Throughout the United States, 'food deserts' force low income families to make tough decisions about what they eat. For example, if your neighborhood lacks a grocery store, buying fresh food can mean schlepping a cart on a subway or bus, or paying for an expensive car service, whereas if you stay in your neighborhood, options may be limited to less healthy food choices.

Although the population of New York City has increased roughly 4.4 percent since 2000 and 13.8 percent since 1990, the number of supermarkets has decreased by one-third over the last six years. The problem has gone unnoticed, however. This week New York State Governor David Paterson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced two new programs to encourage supermarkets to open in underserved areas.

New York State’s Healthy Food/Healthy Communities program will create a $10 million revolving loan program to finance the construction of new markets. The state will also provide low-cost insurance for the subsidized markets, incentives for new affordable housing developments to include food markets in ground floor retail space, a grant program for the establishment of permanent farmers' markets, and incentives to encourage food markets to conserve energy and adopt other sustainable practices.

New York City’s FRESH program (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health), includes zoning and financial incentives such as tax benefits to encourage property owners, developers and store operators to open new locations or renovate current locations in designated food deserts. The City estimates the FRESH program will help to create 15 new grocery stores, renovate 10 existing stores and provide 1,100 new jobs.

According to the Washington Post, prices at small corner neighborhood stores - in New York City these are often either bodegas or chain gas station markets - are almost always significantly higher than at grocery stores. A gallon of milk might cost $4.99 in a small store, as opposed to $3.49 in a supermarket, for example. And, despite New York City’s efforts in recent years to change this trend, small neighborhood markets frequently lack healthier choices such as low fat milk, fresh produce, or whole grain bread. The other option to eat at one of the many fast food restaurants, which often overrun food deserts. The dollar menu may be cheap, but the health consequences are high.

One out of every four New Yorkers under the age of eighteen is obese, and in some areas the number is as high as one-third. Many are learning bad habits early in life due, in part, to living in a food desert. The FRESH Program along the Healthy Food/Healthy Communities aim to help change that. By providing fresh and healthy alternatives, the state and city hope to improve New Yorkers' quality of life.

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