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Eating in East Harlem: A New Resource for Community Residents, Leaders and Policy Makers

Eating in East Harlem: A New Resource for Community Residents, Leaders and Policy Makers

In May 2016 the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute posted at eatingineastharlem.org the complete report Eating in East Harlem An Assessment of Changing Foodscapes in Community District 11, 2000-2015. The report, which we presented at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Forum on March 24th, analyzes changes in five domains -- food retail, food insecurity and food benefits, institutional food, food and nutrition education, and diet-related health conditions -- in East Harlem from before the election of Michael Bloomberg through the first two years of the de Blasio Administration. 

Its goal is to assess the ways in which food environments in East Harlem have improved, stayed the same, or worsened in this 15-year period in order to inform setting food policy goals for the next 5, 10 or 15 years.

First, although East Harlem is blessed with a multitude of organizations and individuals dedicated to improving local food environments and reducing food insecurity and diet-related diseases, two problems are still more common in our community than in other New York City neighborhoods. We identified 64 organizations providing nutrition education in East Harlem, more than half started since 2009; 22 food security programs, and dozens of agencies serving institutional food. In addition to non-profit and government programs, since 2000, the number of retail food establishments in East Harlem has more than doubled from 230 to 468. These organizations and businesses constitute a sturdy foundation for improving our local food environment and demonstrate that since 2000 increasing access to healthy affordablefood has become a priority for many in our community.    

But more does not necessarily mean better. Food establishments selling mostly unhealthy food increased more rapidly than healthy food outlets. East Harlem is neither a food desert, where healthy food is unavailable, nor a food swamp, where only unhealthy food can be purchased. Rather, it is a complex landscape where price, quality and access vary both within East Harlem and compared to other neighborhoods. A decade ago, many believed that more supermarkets were the solution to our food problems. However, even as the number of supermarkets has nearly doubled since 2000, while diet-related diseases have remained persistent, we now understand there is no single fix.  Improving East Harlem's food environments will require the many public, nonprofit and private organizations that now shape these environments to define common goals, coordinate activities, and agree on the metrics that can constitute success.  


An “Iron Chef” class at Association to Benefit Children where parents created meals utilizing the contents of farm fresh produce without knowing what the ingredients would be. Photo credit: Association to Benefit Children

In our survey of organizations conducting nutrition education in East Harlem, for example, we identified several key populations that appear to be underserved by these programs. These include senior citizens, young children, recent immigrants, and people with diet-related diseases. Each of these groups has distinct dietary vulnerabilities yet so far no process is in place in East Harlem (or New York City for that matter) to match unmet needs with organizational capacity and resources. Can we act to fill this gap within the next few years?

Our report also found that focusing on food related policies tells only part of the story of East Harlem's food environments. New York City's high rates of income inequality and the rising rates of low wage jobs explain why so many East Harlem families don't earn enough to afford healthy food. On another front, real estate development and housing policies contribute to the pressures that force affordable supermarkets to close, replaced by higher end food retailers that cater to the wealthier people moving into East Harlem. 

As a result, the rezoning and affordable housing initiatives in East Harlem, important as they are, may have the unintended consequence of decreasing access to healthy affordable food. Now is the time for housing and food activists, elected leaders, and city officials to work together to avert these possible adverse impacts. To give another example of how non-food policies affect diet and health, raising the minimum wage may do more to put more money in people's pockets to be able to buy healthier food than any food policy. The recent state level increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a good step in the right direction but more needs to be done to reverse the last two decades of federal and state economic, wage and tax policies that shifted income from the poor to the wealthy and limited social wages.

Another insight from our report is that the five domains we examined intersect to influence food security and diet-related diseases. For example, increasing numbers of East Harlem residents with SNAP benefits (until 2013), greater availability of fruit and vegetables, the Health Bucks program, and the many local nutrition education programs may have combined to contribute to the increases in fruit and vegetable consumption by East Harlem adults. While our study lacked the ability to attribute observed changes to any single policy, in the future studies should consider the cumulative impact of many policies. From the successful efforts to reduce tobacco use in New York City, it is known that multiple policies are often more effective than any single policy change. By learning to examine our local food system as a whole, we can better identify the multiple opportunities for improvement.

Our study confirmed our belief that local studies of community food environments can yield evidence that can highlight local successes and failures. In the last two decades, New York City has worked hard to make more data available to community residents and leaders so they can participate more fully in policy deliberations. But we found many indicators of food environments unavailable at the scale we needed: Which food programs are available in what East Harlem schools? How good a job are various other agencies within East Harlem, including child care programs, senior centers and youth agencies doing in their institutional food programs in meeting the New York City Food Standards? And the variety of data sources we used to assess changes in the number of retail food establishments in East Harlem over time provided different answers to what appeared to be the same questions. By providingmore reliable, accessible, and user friendly data on local food environments, public agencies and universities can better engage communities in taking action to improve these environments. 

East Harlem street vendors selling handmade Mexican food at 117th Street and Third Avenue

Finally, this report, which we began when our staff was based at the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College and completed in our new home at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health, reaffirmed the value of CUNY faculty, staff and students to working with communitiesfor healthier, more equitable food environments. Faculty from the School of Public Health, Baruch, Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges helped with the research and analysis, contributing perspectives from nutrition, urban planning, sociology, political science and public health. Undergraduate, Master's and doctoral students from these and other disciplines contributed data, analysis and help in writing. We hope this report proves of value to the people and leaders of East Harlem, food justice activists in other communities, city agencies, and to our faculty colleagues and students. We invite partnerships with other communities and organizations to apply what we have learned in other settings. Please read Eating in East Harlem, tell us what you think, correct our mistakes, fill in the gaps (send emails to urbanfoodpolicy@sph.cuny.edu) and help us to write the next chapters of creating healthy foodscapes in East Harlem.