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Low-Income Neighborhoods Lack Access to Nutritious Foods; Groundbreaking Mapping Study Proves Lack of Fresh Produce

Study Demonstrates Link Between Obesity and Hunger; Speaker Quinn, Public Advocate Gotbaum and Hunger Group Say Data Proves Need For Better City and State Coordination of Food Issues

A pioneering new study by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger uses cutting-edge computer mapping technology to demonstrate that low-income neighborhoods in the city lack access to supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and other sources of fresh produce and nutritious food.

Focusing on the low-income neighborhoods of the South Bronx, Central Harlem, and Brownsville, the study indicates that, in low-income neighborhoods, fresh produce and other nutritious foods are often more difficult to physically access than more fattening junk foods and restaurant foods.

The Coalition also unveiled the nation’s first-ever online, interactive map of nearly all food sources in a major city, as well as a complete dataset of these food sources for public use. The interactive map includes sites of varied nutritional quality, including: supermarkets, restaurants, bodegas, farmers’ markets, food stamp offices, green grocers, community gardens, WIC offices, soup kitchens, and food pantries.

The study, interactive map and dataset are available at /research/map_report.html.

“If you can’t find nutritious food, you obviously can’t eat it,” said Joel Berg, Executive Director of the Coalition. “This new study visually documents the serious physical barriers that low-income New Yorkers face in their quest to obtain healthy foods. Banning artificial trans fats will reduce some nutritional risks to all New Yorkers, but it won’t solve the larger problem of the city’s unequal distribution of nutritious foods.”

By demonstrating how nutritious foods are least available in neighborhoods that suffer from some of the city’s highest rates of poverty, the study and interactive map help explain why low-income neighborhoods often suffer from high rates of hunger and obesity at the same time.

Said Berg, “Hunger and obesity are often flip sides of the same malnutrition coin, made worse when the most nutritious foods are unavailable, unaffordable, or both. Rather than patronizingly lecturing low-income New Yorkers on the need to eat better, our public institutions should devote more resources to giving low-income families the tools that enable them to do so.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn commented, “This report highlights that hunger and obesity are two symptoms of the same problem: a lack of access to healthy, affordable food. The City Council is already taking some important steps to give New Yorkers more nutritious food options, such as informing eligible New Yorkers about food stamps and expanding the number of farmers' markets that accept food stamps. These first steps will help reduce hunger across the City and give New Yorkers the healthy meals they deserve. But, as this report suggests, there is more yet to be done.”

The interactive map demonstrates how government sites related to food access – such as food stamps offices, summer feeding sites for children, and WIC offices – are often located closely to each other. However, the Coalition noted that these offices rarely coordinate on services to the community.

Said Berg, “A food stamps office may be just a few feet from a WIC office, but the food stamps office won’t help people apply for WIC, and the WIC office won’t help people apply for food stamps. A farmers’ market may be just around the corner, but neither office will tell their clients about it. This situation proves why Public Advocate Gotbaum and Speaker Quinn are absolutely correct when they say that the City should do a better job of coordinating such interactions across the traditional lines of City agencies. We should also advance efforts to create a statewide food policy council that links these concerns with the interests of New York State’s small family farmers.”

“Every day we hear news reports that stress the importance of a healthy diet,” Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum said. “Yet this project clearly shows the great difficulty many low-income New Yorkers face in finding locations they can turn to for nutritious food. My recent report exposed the Hunger Hotline's failure to provide complete information on all available food pantries to hungry New Yorkers. This administration must improve its coordination with social service providers to end hunger and promote nutrition in New York City.”

Other select findings of the study:

  • In all three of the low-income neighborhoods studied, few food pantries and soup kitchens were open night and weekend hours, thereby making it even more difficult for working poor families to access their food.
  • People who live in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn need to travel 2.5 miles to apply for food stamp benefits.
  • Community District One in the South Bronx suffers from a near-total absence of large food retailers. Numerous, previous studies have documented that large supermarkets are far more likely than small bodegas and corner stores to sell fresh produce and other nutritious foods.

The report also calls for a number of additional public policy improvements, including: better coordination of access to federal nutrition assistance programs; efforts to increase fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods; giving small food outlets more financial incentive to sell healthy foods; and providing additional funding to food pantries and soup kitchens to enable them to coordinate more closely with each other.

The Coalition, an umbrella group for the city’s more than 1,200 charitable food pantries and soup kitchens, works in all five boroughs of the City to meet the immediate food needs of low-income New Yorkers and enact innovative solutions to help them move “beyond the soup kitchen” to self-sufficiency.