Recently urban economists such as Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko have been examining the intended and unintended consequences of zoning and other land use controls. In a recent blog entry, I talked about the consumer price index for "healthy foods" such as fruit and veggies in the inner-city. I argued that because supermarkets and other superstores are zoned out that the poor (who don't own cars) face higher prices for such goods and substitute to junk food and this exacerbates Type 2 Diabetes and obesity problems.
The New York Times article below provides some hard facts about the differential probability that a bodega carries "healthy food" relative to supermarkets. You might say that such stores carry what they think their consumers want to buy. My point is to ask the "what if" question: "If urban areas were zoned for larger stores, would the center city poor have a greater variety of healthy foods to choose from and would this mitigate certain health problems?"
This article seems to imply "yes". While urban planners have tried to argue that "sprawl makes us fat", I'm wondering if urban zoning contributes to the fatness of a certain subgroup of the population. Evidence that sprawl does not make us fat is clearly seen in Matt Turner (University of Toronto Economics Department) recent work. When people suburbanize, they do not gain weight. The "Sex In the City" urban ladies would not gain weight if they sprawled out to suburban Houston. This is Turner's key finding.
January 20, 2006
New York Pushing Better Diet in Poorer Neighborhoods
By MARC SANTORA
Look in just about any bodega in the city's poorer neighborhoods and it is easy to find shelves well-stocked with potato chips, sodas and doughnuts. But just try to find something healthier like fruits or vegetables.
For many low-income city residents, such bodegas are more common shopping options than supermarkets with a much larger roster of healthy items.
So in an effort to provide healthier food choices, city health officials have enlisted bodega owners in an effort to encourage the sale of low-fat milk.
The program, which health officials hope to extend to items like fruits and vegetables if it proves successful, is an attempt to combat the city's obesity epidemic. As the rate of obesity in the city continue to rise, so do associated chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes.
The milk program follows studies indicating that healthy food is scarcer and more expensive in poorer neighborhoods. Many of those communities are served primarily by bodegas in which, compared with supermarkets, the sale of fresh fruit is limited, unhealthy foods are heavily promoted and vegetables are almost nonexistent.
Besides announcing the milk program yesterday, the Health and Mental Hygiene Department released the results of its survey of the availability of various healthy foods in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
The agency found that only one in three bodegas there sold reduced-fat milk, but that 9 out of 10 supermarkets in the neighborhoods did. More than 80 percent of the 373 food stores surveyed in the two neighborhoods were bodegas.
The department is beginning the milk program in three areas with similar food problems: central Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Harlem. Those areas have some of the city's highest obesity rates. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, 30 percent of adults are obese, though the citywide rate is 20 percent.
For several months, the two dozen bodegas that have signed up for the milk program will offer customers discounts on low-fat milk and pass out fliers provided by the health department. There is no financial incentive for the bodegas to participate, but health officials said they have received a positive response.
"Bodegas are essential food providers in our communities, but healthy options are often unavailable," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city's health commissioner. "Cutting down on unnecessary calories and saturated fat can prevent diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems. Most people want to be healthier, and even small lifestyle changes - like switching to 1 percent milk, eating more fruits and vegetables and increasing physical activity - can make a big difference over the long term."
The department's survey in the two Brooklyn neighborhoods found that a scarcity of low-fat milk was just one of many obstacles to healthier eating.
The most common products advertised by bodegas, the survey found, are sugar-laden sodas and sports drinks. Nearly half the stores also advertised cigarettes.
"A typical school has five stores advertising cigarettes within a three-block radius," according to the report.
Bodegas are also much less likely than supermarkets to stock fruits and vegetables, it said. While the majority of bodegas and supermarkets carry some kind of fresh fruit, only 21 percent of the bodegas in Bedford-Stuyvesant offered apples, oranges and bananas. Supermarkets were four times more likely to carry all three.
Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale were found in only 6 percent of the bodegas surveyed. Bodega owners said an important reason they did not carry healthier foods was that they are not very popular.
Even when healthy food is available, bodegas often charge more for it than supermarkets do. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, the average cost of a gallon of milk was 79 cents more in a bodega than in a supermarket.
In order to compile the report, health department workers visited all food stores within a five-mile radius in central Brooklyn. In the bodegas and supermarkets, they recorded both the availability of certain types of food as well as the prices. They also examined the restaurants in the same area.
While national fast-food chains like Burger King and KFC accounted for 13 percent of 168 restaurants surveyed, three out of four restaurants sold only takeout food. The most common categories in the survey were Chinese, Latin American and pizza.
Health officials concede that it is hard to get people to change their eating habits, but they believe they can make a start by heavily promoting good habits and making nutritious food more available.
At a bodega in Harlem, where the milk program was starting yesterday, children at nearby Public School 57 were happy to try low-fat milk. As crossing guards passed out the department's fliers on the product's health benefits, Tiffany Rodriguez, 11, said that she had drunk only whole milk before but that she liked her first sip of the low-fat alternative.
"I think this tastes better than the regular milk," she said.