Throughout the city, New Yorkers enjoy the luxury of crisp apples and leafy lettuce supplied by the Hunts Point Cooperative Market year-round. That is, unless you actually live in the Hunts Point area.
The 60-acre Hunts Point Terminal Market provides 60 percent of the fresh produce – meat, fish, fruits and vegetables – consumed in a metropolitan market of 22 million people.
All the same, the Hunts Point neighborhood is categorized as a “green food desert” – a place with limited access to local food. Such low-income areas have only 75 percent as many chain supermarkets as do middle-income areas.
And this relative lack of fresh food hurts. In 2013, the South Bronx had the highest percentage of obese adults in New York City, at 34 percent. This was likely because of restricted access to healthy foods: People who don’t live near a supermarket are 46 percent less likely to have a healthy diet than those with supermarkets nearby.
For the last three years, the city has worked to give Hunts Point residents better access to quality produce. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative was developed to promote healthier options in the little neighborhood stores where people shop if they don’t have a nearby supermarket. Some of the options included whole- and multi-grain breads, whole-wheat pastas and low-sugar beverages.
The 2012 study found that customers purchased healthier items like canned goods, low-fat milk, and whole-grain bread more often when the healthier items were stocked at eye level. Bodegas reported that 16 percent more healthy options were purchased after a change in product placement.
The benefits of healthier food are no mystery in the neighborhood. Bus driver Robin Blackman, who drives through Hunts Point every day, said he normally buys only juice at the bodegas. “These sugar snacks, these treats, they’re no good,” said Blackman. “They aren’t good for the kids. There aren’t enough fruit stands in the neighborhood. They need more.”
Most customers at one bodega agreed with Blackman and claimed to buy little more than juice from the store. Most of their produce was bought from the supermarket next door.
Local resident Chad Williams said that he only buys about 30 percent of his food from the bodega. He mostly travels to the Key Foods on the other side of the Bruckner Expressway to buy his produce, which he says is fresh and affordable.
For residents who cannot travel to other neighborhoods for healthier foods, there are fewer options.
Mayo Cope said that she is able to purchase healthy food because her Women, Infants, Children (WIC) assistance checks restrict her purchases to healthy food. Her friend Brianna Sastree, who said she does not receive government assistance, said it is hard for her to find healthy foods.
“Some people are so scared of the food that they are actually going to chicken spots and McDonald’s because that is already done,” said Sasstree. “But when it comes for people fending for themselves – that’s why half these people are obese.”
“These sugar snacks, these treats, they’re no good.”
In 2011, New York City launched its Green Cart project, which has been successful in underserved areas. The program provides green deserts like Hunts Point with carts of fresh produce available for residents to buy. On good days, you are likely to see a Green Cart on Baretto Street or Hunts Point Avenue surrounded by shoppers looking for grapes, mangoes, apples and other fresh fruit.
Oscar Sanders, a Hunts Point resident, said he gets his produce from the carts. “I get it from vegetable markets on the street, or people that will pull in trucks and display their fruits and vegetables,” he said. “I guess it depends on how your income is. It could be pretty difficult, but I think it is pretty reasonable.”
Just Food, a Midtown-based organization, bridges local residents and farms up to 250 miles away. This partnership, called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), gives Bronxites direct access to fresh produce and reduces their reliance on bodegas and local supermarkets. Last year, Just Food opened two programs in the South Bronx: one at the South Bronx Farmer’s Market in Mott Haven, and another at the Hunts Point Food Market.
“Residents have responded really well to our program,” said Quiana Mickie, who manages the CSA in Hunts Point. “They say that the produce they get from us is much better than what’s in the bodegas.” Though obesity rates remain high and the neighborhood still has trouble getting fresh produce, Hunts Point residents are at least getting better food than they once did.
“When I was younger, there weren’t any of these green carts,” said Lorena Martinez, a long-time Hunts Point resident. “People mostly shopped at bodegas, or traveled outside the neighborhood. Now, I can walk to the corner and get fresh fruits whenever I want.”
The real issue is no longer access to quality produce, but its affordability. Chenlee Carrasco, 17, a Hunts Point resident and community activist, said fresh fruit is easy to find at nearby Fine Fare, but it’s not always affordable. That doesn’t mean grocery stores are gouging customers. Jeffrey Brown, a district manager from Shop Rite, said suburban grocery stores make an average of 1 percent net profit after tax, while urban stores initially showed a 4 percent loss.
Despite high prices, greater access to better quality foods is the ultimate way to turn a green desert like Hunts Point into an oasis. And in time, Hunts Point may become a neighborhood where people can enjoy the fruit from their own backyard.
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