Food and the Holidays: Feast and Famine

As President-Elect Obama focuses his transition team on a green stimulus plan,  here in New York, Governor Patterson is also proposing public policies that serve multiple purposes. While in Washington, they are able to print money and run a deficit, at the state and local level we have to pay as we go. In Washington they make plans to spend money, in New York we need to make plans to raise new funds. Patterson has combined a proposal to generate revenue with a public policy designed to reduce obesity.

In some ways, Patterson is following the lead of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg: Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to make New York City a healthier place to live. That campaign promise started with controls on smoking and moved to a battle against calories, trans-fat and sodium levels in packaged food. Now Governor Paterson has proposed an 18 percent “obesity tax” that would apply to all non-diet sodas and fruit juices in an effort to raise money for state health programs.

According to official projections, the tax would raise $404 million in its first fiscal year starting in April, but Paterson says ultimately the tax is more health related. At first glance it fits in well with Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to make healthier food more available and more affordable for people living in New York City’s low-income neighborhoods.

Many people in Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn buy their food at bodegas, where healthy choices are often unavailable. Only one in four bodegas in East Harlem sells apples, oranges, and bananas, while leafy green vegetables are available in only four percent of East Harlem bodegas and two percent of Central Harlem stores, according to a 2004 community health survey by the New York City Health Department. About 20% of New Yorkers in these neighborhoods reported that they ate no fruits or vegetables the previous day.

To improve access to healthier food and stem diet-related epidemics such as diabetes and obesity, the Bloomberg administration in 2006 launched a healthy bodegas initiative to make fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk more available in Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn.

The challenge, however, is not just about making good food accessible, but about getting people to eat healthy food once it is available to them.  Too often healthy options are priced above what average people can afford. It’s also true that people don’t always know what to eat and often need information on the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables eat correctly. “We need to provide support to families making difficult choices between paying their bills and putting food on the table,” said Ben Thomases, New York City’s Food Policy Coordinator. “It is not enough to give them calories. We need to give them balanced nutrition.”  As convener of the Food Policy Taskforce, Thomases coordinates the efforts of City agencies to improve access to healthy food.

One such initiative is the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union’s Building Blocks Project, which works with food, health and nutritional advocates, as well as Unions and supermarket owners to ensure that good food, good jobs and good health are the basic building blocks of all communities. Patrick Purcell, Director of Special Projects, observes that rising food prices aren’t the only problem facing New York’s low-income communities: “We simply don’t put enough emphasis on people being able to have good wages to buy food.” 

Will a tax be enough of a disincentive to get people to stop chugging back empty calories or consuming too much sugar? According to the Building Blocks Project’s Food Policy Principles, “Healthy communities require a variety of purchasing options including: farmers markets, community gardens, urban agriculture, food co-ops and supermarkets. These entities must work together with city and state officials to ensure a balanced range of food sources.”

Even if money from the tax is put toward health programs, New Yorkers still face constraints in actually purchasing food. And that raises another critical issue- hunger, a topic we will discuss in an upcoming post.  While eating the wrong food is certainly a problem, having no food to eat is a much worse problem. As many of us gather for holiday feasts and try to control our diets, let’s remember to think about the more than one billion people around the world who do not have enough to eat. Hunger is a fact of life throughout the world, and its presence is a great sadness and a moral outrage. The moral horror of hunger in the United States is compounded by both the waste of food and overconsumption so typical of the American lifestyle.  This is a holiday season that is notable for a growing sense of fear and insecurity. Still, those of us with full refrigerators and warm homes need to remember those without and open our hearts and wallets to them.

Food and the Holidays: Feast and Famine