Back in December, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — following a recommendation from his Food Policy Task Force — proposed an increase in the number of fruit and vegetable carts on the city's streets. Not only would there be 1,500 more “Green Carts” throughout the Big Apple, but they would be strategically placed in low-income neighborhoods lacking adequate access to fresh produce.
This was a public health move aimed at creating a more healthful city. It was also, in many respects, the city's way of calling out supermarkets.
“Access to healthy foods varies widely throughout New York City, and in many lower-income neighborhoods, supermarkets are few and far between,” said the mayor in a statement.
Legislation like this underscores the increased attention that government officials and academics are paying to the food gap between low-income consumers and the healthy offerings they need. A crop of recent studies has pointed to economic and geographical barriers that stand in the way.
Indeed, New York's decision came amid an increasing number of reports showing “food deserts” in low-income urban areas. A study by the city's Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, for instance, found that in the generally poor Harlem neighborhood, bodegas and convenience stores — which typically have inferior produce and few healthful offerings — outnumber supermarkets more than 9 to 1. The more affluent Upper East Side, in comparison, has a ratio of less than 2 to 1.
Studies are also showing the financial burden of buying healthy food and produce. In November, researchers at the Center for Advanced Studies in Nutrition and Social Marketing at the University of California, Davis, found that in order to meet the latest dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables, many low-income families have to spend more than their food budgets will allow.
And it seems that as produce becomes less affordable, high-calorie processed foods become the more enticing alternative. A December study by the University of Washington's Center for Public Health Nutrition showed that low-calorie foods like fresh fruits and vegetables jumped in price by nearly 20% between 2004 and 2006. The price of calorie-dense processed foods, on the other hand, stayed relatively stable.
“The gap between what we say people should eat, and what they can afford, is becoming unacceptably wide,” said Adam Drewnowski, the center's director.
It doesn't have to be this way. Diana Cassidy, an assistant professor of public health sciences at UC Davis, said that low-income consumers end up spending just as much on groceries as their wealthier counterparts, and they are just as willing to spend money on produce and other healthful items that are available at supermarkets. Supermarkets can help by offering free shuttle services to and from stores, for instance. She also recommended offering discounts on nutritious items, and providing more in-store samples to pique consumer interest.