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Residents get fat and get sick

A few Hunts Point eateries offer alternatives to fried and fattening food

By Sudip P. Mukherjee
smukherj@hunter.cuny.edu

Photo by Sudip Mukherjee

“The real important thing is letting people know what’s good for them,” 

 

said Vincent Murillo, as he concocted a drink at Pico’s Juice Bar.

Finding a place to buy food on Hunts Point Avenue is not a difficult task. Just south of Bruckner Boulevard, El Coche Strip Club offers chicken wings, though food isn’t really what it is about. But just down the block are the Bella Vista Fried Chicken and Gyro/Pizza, restaurants, where a hungry patron can order gyros or cheeseburger platters with French fries and a can of soda for under $4. A few steps further along is a Chinese takeout place and a KFC.

Those who want to prepare their own food can continue across Garrison Avenue, to the Casanova Meat Market, where in addition to meat, a limited spread of overripe plantains, mushy oranges and green peppers that have seen better days are displayed.

For people like Lisa Sicilia, these choices aren’t good enough. She is one of a growing number of people who are concerned that neighborhoods like Hunts Point and Longwood aren’t offered healthy, nutritious food, and its residents are getting fat and getting sick as a result.
“Hunts Point Avenue is probably the worst, with all the fast food joints and greasy hole-in-the-wall places you’ll find there,”she said.
Born into a culinary family, Sicilia, 28, relishes her role as a provider of healthy food in an area that has so little of it. She recently opened a small café in The Point’s building on Garrison Avenue that serves fresh salads, wraps and sandwiches daily.

In addition to selling food, Sicilia’s café gives elementary school children healthy snacks during a makeshift after-school program she hosts. By giving young kids green salads and sandwich wraps instead of hamburgers and fries, Sicilia is trying to teach younger generations to eat right.

Improving the locals’diet was one of the goals The Point set out to accomplish when it searched for someone to set up shop at the center.

“If you walk on any street in Hunts Point, you won’t find a single retailer that can provide fresh produce other than maybe one hole-in-the-wall,” said Adam Liebowitz, a program director at the community center. “One place that provides groceries to thousands of residents is not enough.”
Students in The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program toured the neighborhood to make a short documentary illustrating the insufficient supply of fruits and vegetables.

Public health authorities blame diet for the fact that local residents are in ill health, compared to New Yorkers as a whole. The most recent Health Department statistics, which track Hunts Point and Longwood together with Mott Haven, show that one in four adults in those neighborhoods is obese. In 2003-04 hospitalizations for heart disease were 50% higher than for the city as a whole; 17% of adults have diabetes, nearly double the percentage citywide.

Sicilia is joined by other food vendors in Hunts Point who hope to inspire residents to eat right.
“I thought why not make something good to eat, and healthy,” said Luis Pico, a 40-year veteran of the steel business, who owns Pico’s Juice Bar on Hunts Point Avenue.

“There’s many workers from the area that get tired of the fried this and that,” he said. “But I know, to give knowledge of fruits and vegetables, and give back healthy food, would be better for this area.”
The list of ingredients on the back of Pico’s bright green menu offers remedies for a variety of ailments. From a blend of carrots, apples, parsley and ginger for a sore throat, to a mix of carrots, spinach, kale and beets for anemia, Pico uses the lure of health to attract customers.

He and Sicilia agree that education is a key ingredient if people’s eating habits are to change.
“People from the Congressman’s Office, from the Sustainable South Bronx, and all over have been coming here,” said Sicilia of her café. “To start that dialogue among all of them is a crucial step in improving health in the South Bronx.” 

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