Danger in the food deserts


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Access to affordable healthy options should be a right of all New Yorkers


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  • A city program allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at local farmers’ markets. Photo: Phil Roeder, via flickr




In his annual State of the City address earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out a plan to provide affordable health care to all New Yorkers. “Health care is a human right, not a privilege reserved for those who can afford it,” said the Mayor. While we could not agree more with the Mayor, we also believe that all New Yorkers should have the right to the tools necessary to live healthy lifestyles — including access to affordable, healthy food.

Unfortunately, access to healthy food has become a privilege for some instead of a right for all. While many of us can walk out of our homes in any direction and pick up healthy groceries, millions of New Yorkers live in food deserts, neighborhoods where affordable, healthy food options, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are almost nonexistent. Meanwhile, fast food restaurants and corner stores with few healthy options are omnipresent in these same neighborhoods.

Living in a food desert means you are more likely to develop obesity because of a lack of healthy food options. Adding to the challenge for many New Yorkers are the few opportunities for physical activity and a lack of physical education programs in many city schools.

The increasing lack of affordable healthy food comes at a particularly unhealthy time in New York City. After more than a decade of decline, the percentage of obese adults rose to 25 percent this past year. That’s more than a 22 percent increase since 2002, according to the recently released Mayor’s Management Report. When you include overweight — meaning not-yet-obese — adults, more than half of all adult New Yorkers tip the scales at unhealthy levels.

Even more alarming is the sharp increase in obesity among youth in New York City. Nearly half of all elementary school and Head Start students are either overweight or obese. Research shows that overweight kids are more likely to become overweight adults and experience other health risks.

These trends are so alarming because approximately 18 percent of all cancers are attributed to poor diet, physical inactivity, excess weight and excess alcohol consumption. Excess body weight, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition are also major risk factors for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious health issues.

In recent years, New York City has taken significant steps to improve the health of its residents by launching a variety of programs designed to improve access to healthy foods. The City Council has funded an initiative that expands access to healthy food choices, including a program that allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits at local farmers’ markets. Mayor de Blasio has also provided millions of dollars to city schools to increase the number of physical education teachers and develop space for physical education programs.

Yet, despite these initiatives, we know that too many adults are not eating any fruits or vegetables daily and that nearly a quarter of all adults are consuming sugary drinks daily. Some quarter-million children in New York City are still not getting the state mandated amount of physical education each week according to a recent report by the Department of Education.

In 2015 Mayor de Blasio set a goal to cut premature mortality by 25 percent by 2040 as part of his OneNYC Plan. This is an ambitious goal and one that we must meet. But to do so, city officials need to respond to these alarming trends by using their authority to address the factors contributing to the obesity crisis.

If we want to improve the health of New Yorkers, some of the steps that we need to consider are:

• Helping store owners bring and keep healthy foods on their shelves

• Providing financial incentives to businesses willing to open healthy food establishments in underserved neighborhoods

• Using zoning rules to promote healthy foods

• Discouraging the consumption of sugary drinks

• Further expanding SNAP benefits

• Strengthening school nutritional standards

• Making permanent New York City’s recent financial investment in physical education

Like health care, access to affordable healthy foods should be a right for all New Yorkers. While the food and obesity crisis has been building for more than two decades, it is up to us to look at our budgets and take decisive steps that will reduce obesity in our city and prevent even more unnecessary deaths. Access to affordable healthy food should not be a privilege afforded to those of us lucky to live in a food oasis rather than food desert. Access to affordable healthy food should be a right of all New Yorkers.

Mark Levine is Chair of the New York City Council’s Health Committee and represents District 7 which includes the neighborhoods of Manhattan Valley, Manhattanville, Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights.

Michael Davoli is the Director of Government Relations in Metro New York for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) and a member of the New York City Department of Education District Wellness Advisory Council.





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