Friday, February 1, 2008

Green Cart Proposal Takes On Harlem Health

Green Cart Proposal Takes On Harlem Health

By Scott Levi

Lilliam Lara assembles piles of fresh produce behind the counter at Stephanie Grocery at 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Her daughter, after whom the store is named, stands at the cashier, surrounded by a colorful array of tomatoes, avocados, bananas, and grapes, as well as the usual hodgepodge of chips, cans of Coca-Cola, and six-packs of beer.

Lara, one of over 400 Harlem bodega owners, said nutritional options in Upper Manhattan are lacking, despite her efforts to bring them to the neighborhood. “In this area they forget about health,” she said in Spanish. “Many people suffer.”

Yet with a new City Council proposal to increase the number of street vendors selling produce in areas where individuals eat fewer than the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, concerns like Lara’s may soon diminish.

The bill, known as Introduction 665, would provide 1,500 new permits to street vendors exclusively selling fresh fruits and vegetables over two years, allowing 200 of these “green carts” to choose street corners within boundaries marked by police precincts in upper Manhattan, including Morningside Heights’ and West Harlem’s 26th Precinct.

At an over three-hour-long City Council hearing on the bill Thursday, members of the Committee for Consumer Affairs proved the matter was more complicated than apples and oranges. While public health experts and grocery proprietors laud the bill for its efforts to help combat Harlem’s health problems, the hearing met with a chorus of aggravated small business owners and street vendors outside City Hall who censure the plan as unreasonable.

Sung Soo Kim of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York spoke on behalf of many of the city’s 1,400 Korean-owned green groceries. His wife, Sunny Kim, told Spectator in an interview: “It’s unfair. They [vendors] don’t pay rent, they don’t pay taxes. They can lower their prices, but supermarkets, who pay rent and pay taxes, cannot.”

The problem, according to a 2007 report from the East and Central Harlem offices of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is that Harlem residents buy groceries primarily at bodegas, which are notorious for their limited selection of fruits and vegetables. Central Harlem and East Harlem contain 153 and 174 bodegas, respectively, while the Upper East Side has only 46. Additionally, whereas 20 percent of Upper East Side bodegas carry leafy greens, a mere 3 percent sell them in Harlem. Overall, just a quarter of bodegas sell the standard package of apples, oranges, and bananas, the report said.

According to the Health Department’s last triennial report from 2004-2006, the obesity and diabetes rates in Harlem surge above those of other neighborhoods. Obesity in Harlem ranges from 20.1 percent to 25.2 percent, compared with the rest of Manhattan’s 9.2 to 20 percent. Harlem’s diabetes rate is anywhere from 8.5 percent to 15.7 percent, while most of Manhattan’s is from 4.9 to 8.4 percent.

Citing high levels of nutritional diseases, the bill’s proponents—who include council members Inez Dickens and Robert Jackson and New York State Senator Bill Perkins—expand the issue to include more than simply a lack of access to fruits and vegetables in poor communities. They also point to a dearth of reduced-fat milk and under-enrollment in food stamp and free school lunch programs.

“Most anyone in the field is acknowledging that we have a toxic environment for obesity and that we have to look everywhere we can for healthier choices,” said Dr. Sharon Akabas of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Higher rates of obesity correspond to lower socioeconomic levels, and often the task of affording healthy foods can create the largest hurdle, she said.

Though not representative of all of Harlem, statistics match local opinion. “I once studied the area and found that there were not enough fruits and vegetables,” said Asif Almairir of Wise 99-cent Discount Store at 114th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “People started asking for them, so I added fruits and vegetables, but there wasn’t enough room,” he added, gesturing to a disorderly stack of water bottles that now occupy the spot where produce was once on display.

Some council members questioned whether areas where people do not eat nutritionally are without stores that sell fruits and vegetables. “We know people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, but we don’t know if there’s a problem with availability,” city council member Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) said.

Kim and Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who represents the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, suggested alternatives to what they called “pushcarts” and “peddlers” incentives and bonuses for small grocers to stock healthier options and reduced fees for outdoor “stoop permits.”

But fruit carts may attract foot traffic to healthy foods more effectively, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Thomas Frieden said. The department is currently reworking last year’s unsuccessful pilot program to bring fresh produce to bodegas. It is more profitable, for example, for small groceries to give shelf space to cigarettes than to bananas, he said.

Frieden and the Food Policy Task Force, both investigating fresh food consumption in New York City, underline that this plan is one of many initiatives the city is undertaking to battle health issues, but the debate still rages on whether the passage of this bill will indeed improve standards of nutrition throughout New York City.

“That’s BS,” Sunny Kim said. “If they want to improve their nutrition, they can go to nearby supermarkets. There are fruits and vegetables all over New York City.”

While the shrill discord of disparate voices colors the proposal, some believe that it will ultimately be the bodega owners who feel the greatest effects. “I don’t want them [vendors] on the street, no, not in the open. A better solution would be to have more bodegas with fruits and vegetables,” an employee at 283 W. 115th Street Deli Grocery said.

Others don’t foresee such a bleak future. “I know my customers,” Almairir said as he conversed with a client about her job as a flight attendant. “Nobody can take away a customer.”

A vote on the bill will be held within the next few weeks, according to a spokesman for the City Council.

Daniel Amzallag and Sara Vogel contributed to this article.

NB - Daniel and Sara by now you and the Spectator should know that Morningside Heights is in West Harlem and that the 26th Precinct covers Morningiside Heights, Manhattantille and Vinegar Hill. - JRM

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