BELMONT — After proposing an outright ban on serving supersized sodas, the city is now trying to encourage supermarkets to keep junk foods out of sight.
City officials announced a new pilot program Wednesday in which bodegas, grocery stores and other food retailers can voluntarily commit to prioritizing stocking healthier food items, including fresh fruits and vegetables, and displaying them in prime areas, including eye-level shelves and near check-out aisles.
Unhealthy items, like full-sugar sodas and chips, would still be allowed in the stores, but given lower-value real estate.
“The idea is that we are going to just saturate on every level — in the household, through community groups, through the stores — messages around the importance of integrating healthy fruits and vegetables into the diet,” said Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who announced the program standing in front of a display of fresh avocados, mangoes and tomatoes at a participating C-Town in the Bronx.
So far, more than 80 of the 150 stores approached by the city have agreed to participate in the pilot program, which will span across the Fordham and West Farms sections of the Bronx.
In addition to placing fruits and vegetables in high-profile spaces, participating stores have also agreed to promote healthy deli combos and mark healthy items with special city logos and signs.
In addition, two large food suppliers, Jetro/RD and Krasdale Foods, have committed to giving participating store discounts and special order forms highlighting healthy food options.
Stores that participate can win proclamations and certificates awarding their efforts.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley noted that the Bronx current has one of the highest obesity rates in the city. In the two zip codes targeted by the pilot, nearly 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese, he said.
The efforts mark a very different approach to fighting obesity than the city's controversial plan to ban restaurants and delis from serving full-sugar drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces, which will be debated at a hearing next week.
“It is focused on working with everybody,” said Gibbs, who described the pilot as “the most innovative, comprehensive community healthy food initiative in the nation."
The efforts are also aimed at trying to counter the assumption that healthy eating costs more than gorging on junk.
“There is a myth many of us hear over and over: that healthy food is too expensive,” said Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar, who said that fresh fruits and vegetables can actually be cheaper than many fast foods.
To drive home the message, the city unveiled a new guide to "making healthier food choices” aimed at food stamp users, which compares the cost and nutritional value of common fast-food items versus home-made meals.
Radame Perez, 35, whose family owns the C-Town, said his family members lost more than 100 pounds combined over the past two years by cutting out the junk and said he hopes efforts like the pilot will help convince residents that healthy, affordable food is available in the neighborhood.
“You can shop healthy right here in the Bronx,” he said.
But not everyone was convinced the efforts would make a difference.
“That might not stop people, but still would let people know what they’re eating,” said Kendra Edwards, 24, who lives in the neighborhood, and was grocery shopping Wednesday morning at the store.
“Fruits and vegetables might not taste like ice cream, but that’s stuff that you want,” she said.
Patricia Washington, 54, said that she didn’t think the changes would influence what she puts in her shopping cart, but liked having access to more information.
“I think it’s a good idea,” she said.