Only three months into his tenure, Mayor Eric Adams has put food policy front and center in his agenda. In February, he hosted a cooking demonstration while announcing a citywide chain of plant-based medicine clinics. He directed city agencies to serve more plant-based meals a few weeks later.
But concurrently, Adams has also called the high price of healthy food "a myth" and said New Yorkers should buy berries and lentils from their local bodegas.
“I want people to say, ‘What could I eat in my bodega right now?’” Adams said at the February 7th cooking event. “These black-eyed peas are right in your local bodega. The carrots in your local bodega. The bananas, the apples in your local bodega. The berries in your local bodega.”
In truth, experts say time and money constraints, as well as a segregated food system, make it difficult for the poorest New Yorkers to eat the kind of diet that helped Adams himself manage his Type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease afflicting close to 1 million New Yorkers.
Adams has acknowledged these disparities, telling reporters, “Healthy food is where The New York Times is on the stand. Unhealthy food is where all the other tabloids are on the stand.” Research finds that not having enough nutritious food is linked to chronic disease risk, particularly for people who aren’t eligible for food assistance services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Food policy experts and advocates applaud the mayor’s food-forward agenda, while also calling on him to fill gaps in the city’s disconnected patchwork of nutrition programs. The researchers and advocates interviewed for this story say the city’s efforts to remedy food insecurity tend to address smaller issues, like the absence of grocery stores, rather than the overarching problems.
“What would it take to make healthy food as convenient, accessible and affordable as unhealthy food?” asked Nicholas Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. “How can we change the calculus, so healthy food is the easy choice rather than the hard choice? We really need to think of policies that would move us in that direction.”
The grocery gap
Bodega berries notwithstanding, many New Yorkers rely on smaller markets with few fresh produce options to feed their families, simply because they’re more plentiful than full-service grocery stores. According to state data from 2016 aggregated by the city health department, bodegas outnumber supermarkets 18 to 1 in the poorest parts of the city — more than double the gap seen in wealthy areas.
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 larger amount of fresh produce. The state health department has since updated its database of food retailers, but the city health department hasn’t refreshed 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 a lot of fast food options that are available, but not access to higher-quality produce,” said Iyeshima Harris-Ouedraogo, project director of East New York Farms!, which runs three urban farms in the neighborhood, including two based in NYCHA developments. In 2016, bodegas outnumbered grocery stores 13 to 1 in East New York and nearby Starrett City.
Since then, the neighborhood has gotten a new grocery store through the city’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program, which offers tax and zoning perks to vendors who build grocery stores in underserved areas. Since the program began in 2009, 22 FRESH stores have opened, and six more are on the way.
Brooklyn’s third community district, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, is home to 10 of the FRESH stores. Other areas, like southeast Queens, haven’t attracted a single new store through the program. A second East New York FRESH store has been approved but is not yet occupied, according to a city map of program sites last updated in February 2021.
“It’s done some good work, but it’s limited and has not been able to reach scale,” Liz Accles, executive director of local nonprofit Community Food Advocates, said of the program. “There’s never been a comprehensive plan around supermarket access.”
The incentives offered by the program are “modest,” Freudenberg said, so it hasn’t transformed the grocery store landscape of the city.
“More have opened as a result of perceived market opportunities than have been subsidized by FRESH,” he added.
In December 2021, the city council voted to expand FRESH to more neighborhoods, including Far Rockaway in Queens and Staten Island’s North Shore — albeit without the tax breaks offered in the original coverage area.
Gothamist reached out to the mayor’s office for a comment on the status of the program, as well as Adams’s plans for improving grocery access in the city. Among the many proposals in Adams’s COVID economic recovery plan for the city are more opportunities for legal street food vending and the redevelopment of the Hunts Point Produce Market.
Are supermarkets enough?
Experts caution that food insecurity and chronic disease won’t be remedied by supermarkets alone.
“It’s not as simple as parachuting in a supermarket with fruits and vegetables,” said Sandra Albrecht, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The groceries must also be reasonably priced, the selection has to be culturally appropriate, and the store has to align its hours of operation with clients’ work schedules, she added.
Accles said new supermarket projects should also include well-paid jobs for community members as part of a community benefits agreement contract.
And while access to well-stocked grocery stores is linked to better diets and overall health, it’s just one piece of the city’s food puzzle. In a series of policy briefs, researchers from the City University of New York called on city officials to expand and strengthen programs that make food more affordable for the poorest New Yorkers, including SNAP, EBT, Health Bucks and Get the Good Stuff. The researchers also suggested that the city help bodega owners upgrade their facilities so that they can sell fresh food.
Harris-Ouedraogo also called on the mayor to support and promote local farmer’s markets like East New York Farms, which took a hit during the pandemic when many clients switched over to grocery delivery services like Instacart.
Ultimately, experts and advocates say, the biggest barrier to food access — and beating chronic disease in New York City — is income inequality.
“When people have adequate income, they’ll use a chunk of that to buy healthier food,” Freudenberg said.