Concrete jungle: Food deserts lead to malnourishment in biggest U.S. cities

The Pathmark in East Harlem was once the main hub for many residents’ needs. Now, it has been empty for five years. And there is no potential buyer in sight. (Pablo Alvarez/South Florida Media Network)

For nearly 20 years, residents of East Harlem had access to reasonably priced fresh produce and other basic necessities at the local Pathmark grocery store. In 2015, following the bankruptcy of its parent company, Pathmark closed all of its stores. This left many low-income residents in food deserts – a term is used to describe the fallout when a centralized food market closes and leaves residents in the area it served with few alternatives.

The Pathmark closure left a void in the area, denying the 30,000 weekly customers it served easy access to healthy food that neighboring stores don’t provide. It has led to increased malnourishment in the area, as the low-income residents living there no longer have quality food options nearby.

With the store now abandoned, low-income residents have to choose between spending more money traveling to an affordable grocery store farther away, buying unhealthy products at local bodegas or consuming other fast-food options.

Nellie Sanndies, a local resident who used to shop at the Pathmark, now travels further from her home to get affordable groceries. She is one of more than 23 million people across the country currently living in a food desert. New York and Miami — which both offer examples — are developing solutions.

“The stores around here just aren’t good. There are no healthy foods at all. I really miss Pathmark and it’s a shame they closed,” said Sanndies.

Naayah Campbell, who was helping carry Sanndies’ grocery bag on a recent day, described the hassle it has been to get healthy foods. “Before, we would just take the train to 125th and it would land us right in front of Pathmark,” she said. “Now we have to go through so many extra steps just to get to another grocery store.”

According to the New York City Department of Health’s 2016 Community Health Survey, rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension in adults in East Harlem are above average compared to the rest of New York City. Rates of diabetes have increased to 17 percent in East Harlem, compared to 13 percent in 2010, when the supermarket was still open.

Beth Weitzman,a professor of Health and Public Policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, discussed the various methods the state of New York is using to combat food deserts, but said none of them do quite enough.

“There’s plenty of incentives for using the green markets you see on the streets of the city. For every five dollars you spend, you get two dollars to spend on produce,” said Weitzman of families using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, to better afford fruits and vegetables. “All these programs are working together, but none are the magic bullet.”

East Harlem is just one of many food deserts cropping up around the country, with an estimated 6,500 similar areas in low-income neighborhoods throughout the U.S. according to the USDA. Parts of Miami such as Liberty City and Overtown, where many low-income residents reside, have also turned into food deserts where fresh produce is not easily accessible.

However, one Miami non-profit group called Health in the Hood works to grant easier access to fresh and healthy foods, even providing them for free for local residents. Each year, around 1,000 low-income residents take advantage of the group’s community gardens in Liberty City, Opa-Locka, Hallandale Beach and Overtown, which has been subject to gentrification over the last few years.

“With the gentrification of places like Wynwood, where healthy produce in a supermarket one block away from these low-income neighborhoods can cost up to nine dollars, it’s really important to provide an affordable source of healthy foods,” said Asha Loring, founder and executive director of Health in the Hood. “With the mobile truck we got as part of our work with the reality TV show ‘Returning the Favor,’ we’re able to touch more communities.”

Pablo Alvarez, a Cuban and Puerto Rican American, has interest in writing anything and everything regarding politics, the environment, community stories and much more. He wants to write groundbreaking stories that matter to readers and have an impact on them.