News & Politics

Food Fight: Harlem Forum Debates Supermarket Sweeps


photos by John DeSio

Is it sinister racism or a misunderstanding of markets that shapes food policy in the city’s poor neighborhoods? The Harlem Food & Fitness Consortium was looking for answers on Wednesday.

Yesterday evening the group held a town hall forum to discuss the dearth of supermarkets in Harlem and other communities like it. Local and citywide food activists addressed a crowd of more than 100 attendees on the importance of expanding supermarket access in their neighborhood, and how that expansion could lead to healthy eating. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (pictured) made a surprise appearance at the event, and told the crowd that the forum itself showed that Harlem had come a long way.

“We have shown that if we build a consensus and a coalition from the bottom up, and get people the information they need on healthy eating and on how to take back the community after decades and decades of environmental racism, we can truly make a difference,” said Stringer.

Advocates for increasing supermarket reach in low income neighborhoods, such as Harlem, complain that a lack of real food stores forces neighborhood residents, typically minorities, to do more of their shopping in bodegas. Those stores usually lack healthy foods like green vegetables and fruit, though they have no shortage of pre-packaged snacks and sugary drinks. Residents have to buy what is available, and are forced to make less than healthy food choices.

A 2007 study by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that two out of three food stores in east and central Harlem are bodegas, that those bodegas are considerably less likely to carry healthier foods than their counterparts on the Upper East Side, and that 16 percent of all restaurants in central and east Harlem are fast-food establishments.

Stringer said that his office, along with Columbia University, was planning a major forum in November to deal with the food crisis facing neighborhoods like Harlem and the city as a whole.

“It takes 3,000 miles for that tomato to get to your plate,” said Stringer, who called for “radical, transformative ideas” to take hold in Manhattan, such as vertical farming and personal vegetable gardens. “There’s a lot of bad things that happen to our food on the way to us eating it.”

Stringer said the problem was worse than one might think. When his office released the “Go Green East Harlem Cookbook” in January, he heard constant complaints that residents of the neighborhood the cookbook is named for could not find ingredients for its recipes in their community. The key to changing the food culture in poor neighborhoods is to show demand, said Stringer.

“Part of what we have to do is create a market, so that we have store owners recognize that healthy ingredients that prolong life, reduce illness, is the way to go,” he said. “But only if we create that market.”

James Subudhi (pictured) of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which helped organize the event, said that the market argument is a fallacy, and that the lack of healthy vegetables in Harlem and elsewhere can be attributed to three reasons: “Classism, free markets, and racism.” Subudhi offered the numerous street vendors that peddle fruits and vegetables along 125th Street as proof.

“They’re meeting a demand that’s there, because people are buying them,” said Subudhi. “Or else, still following that logic, they wouldn’t be there. It’s a logic that’s very perverse.”

Subudhi was also critical of the city’s Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program, which has given tax incentives since 1976 to gas stations, chain stores and fast-food restaurants that open above 96th Street.

“Well, guess what?” asked a sarcastic Subudhi. “If you offered that to supermarkets, they would probably locate above 96th Street, too.”

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