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There’s not enough healthy food, says city

No one wants to buy it, say Hunts Point storeowners

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

A city program to promote healthier diets in low-income neighborhoods by providing bodegas with low-fat milk and packaged snacks of apples and carrots is making a difference in Hunts Point, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

But the association that represents small grocery stores has its doubts, saying that while it is cooperating with the city’s efforts to supply the stores, the real issue is demand, and many residents aren’t interested. And a survey by The Hunts Point Express found that workers in some stores cited as success stories by the city agency, either didn’t know of the program or described it as a failure.

In a study of bodegas in two poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the health department learned that only a third sold low-fat milk, and that they charged higher prices for it. Only a quarter sold fresh fruit, and just six percent sold leafy vegetables. The situation is similar in Hunts Point and Longwood, according to the city agency.

“We worked with over 200 bodegas in parts of Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Harlem to get a sense of what was going on and how we could help,”

said Sabrina Baronberg, the deputy director of physical health and nutrition at the health department.

“We had a lot of success,” said Baronberg of the fruits and vegetables program, which concluded its pilot phase in January 2007. “We received a lot of positive feedback from the bodegas that participated, and we plan to start up again by the end of the spring.”

 

However, some of the stores the health department described as success stories disagreed. At the SSA Deli Grocery at 833 East 149th Street, employees said they didn’

t believe they had even been approached to participate in the program.

“No, we didn’t have anybody come,”

said Muhammed Ali, an employee of the store. As he rang up a sale of four packs of Marlboro Reds, Ali explained that the store had only been open for a year, so he would know whether anybody had approached him or his manager to discuss stocking fruits and vegetables or 1% milk.

“But it doesn’t matter, because nobody wants that food,” said Ali.

Baronberg discounted Ali’s scoffing, saying a handful of stores that initially responded to the Healthy Bodega Initiative didn’t follow through.

Just up the street at La Borinquena Food Market, a small selection of bananas, apples, bell peppers and pineapples were on view. But Danny Torres, who opened Torres Fruits and Vegetables on Hunts Point Avenue nearly 20 years ago, says he’s likely to go out of business because people no longer want to buy the fresh produce he sells.

Sitting on a stool in a small store smelling of fresh lemons, oranges and kiwis, Torres recalled health conscious people who lived in the neighborhood and helped his store to prosper. “They’re all gone,” he said. “Nobody comes anymore to buy fruit, so I sell cheaper and cheaper.”

 

By the end of the year, he has hopes of opening a discount store with his son, selling designer knockoff sunglasses for $20 apiece.

Torres’

s experience explains the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale in Hunts Point, contends Richard Lipsky, chief lobbyist and spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, a trade association that represents small storeowners.

“As demand dictates, when people don’t want to purchase the products, then store-owners won’t stock them,” he said, adding that the vast majority of bodega owners don’t have enough space to stock produce.

Demand is low because fresh and healthy foods generally cost more, and educating people on the pluses of eating smarter is time consuming, said Majora Carter, the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, whose organization helped create the South Bronx Farmers Market, but found operating it too complex.

“When people are used to buying food in a can, they get used to that convenience,” Carter told The Hunts Point Express. “Educating people, making sure they know how to eat right, is certainly the best option, but is too expensive, and really becomes a full-time job.”

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