What is lost when a grocery store closes? Nutrition, health, and well-being suffer. In New York City, access to affordable, healthy food, and personal relationships with neighborhood grocers disappear as local grocery stores close to make way for real estate development, fast-food franchises, and large-scale supermarkets that are physically and financially inaccessible to many low-income New Yorkers.
Understanding the importance of access to food options, ISLG’s Equality Indicators Annual Report 2016 includes one indicator on food security, which refers to “access…at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The indicator race and food security compares Hispanic and Asian residents’ food security ratings—we compare these groups because our baseline data showed that Hispanics were the most disadvantaged in this area and Asians the least. In 2015 this indicator scored 36 out of 100, a low score. Despite the fact that food insecurity fell across racial groups, the difference between Hispanics and Asians was higher in the year that followed and inequality worsened: food security received a score of 23 out of 100 in 2016, showing a moderately-sized negative change score (-13).
Food insecurity is a big problem in New York City, especially among Hispanics. We found that more than one in four Hispanic New Yorkers (27.2%) had low or very low food security in 2015, the year the 2016 data were collected. The rate for white New Yorkers (6.0%) was close to Asians (5.8%), the group with the lowest food insecurity, while 17.0% of blacks experienced food insecurity.
East Harlem, a majority Hispanic neighborhood where almost one third of residents are in poverty, relies heavily on federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding. East Harlem residents experience both food insecurity and high rates of diet-related diseases, which may be related to the options available to them.
In a 2016 report, the CUNY School of Public Health and New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College examined East Harlem food options between 2000 and 2015. One of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Manhattan and New York City as a whole, East Harlem has more franchise restaurants, farmers markets, green carts, liquor stores, and supermarkets in 2015 compared to 2000, but fewer produce, meat, poultry, and fish markets.
Bodegas and fast food outlets were the most common food sources in 2015 and 2000, selling mostly unhealthy options. The closure of two large supermarkets further limited healthy, affordable food options. Generally, bodegas and fast food restaurants provide limited options to make healthy choices, while supermarkets and farmers’ markets or other produce sellers provide a wider range of options. The number of East Harlem franchise restaurants, including fast food, increased over 300% between 2000 and 2015. The report notes an increase in spending at fast food chain restaurants, which, in addition to serving unhealthy options, moves money out of the neighborhood. During the same period, however, the number of farmers’ markets increased from 1 to 7.
Across the city, targeted public health interventions, including allowing SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets and incentives for healthy food in bodegas have created new opportunities to buy healthier food. In addition, the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program created under the Bloomberg administration, provides zoning and tax incentives to encourage grocery stores to open and remain in underserved neighborhoods. At the same time, however, economic development policies have incentivized the displacement of affordable neighborhood food retailers like Pathmark, Gristedes, and Associated to make way for other real estate and larger, more expensive supermarkets, making healthy food less accessible.
Can bodegas and farmers’ markets replace what is lost when neighborhood grocery stores close? Food and other economic development policies impact the availability of healthy food which affects nutrition, the well-being of children and other vulnerable populations, and therefore the health of a community overall. We must scrutinize whether these policies reduce the disparity for Hispanic New Yorkers and increase food security for all.