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Health Advocates See Bronx Bodegas as Front Line in Battle Against Obesity

By Patrick Wall | August 15, 2013 8:40am
 Health groups are pushing Bronx bodegas to offer more nutritional snacks and customers to buy them, but many challenges remain.
Healthier Bronx Bodegas
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MOTT HAVEN — Mackey Deli-Grocery, a narrow bodega squeezed between a Chinese take-out joint and a pharmacy in the shadow of the Patterson Houses, is on the front line of the South Bronx’s obesity battle.

So it was a significant victory for the anti-obesity forces when an overweight woman walked into the store one recent afternoon, bypassed the racks of cookies and chips, and pulled three individually wrapped watermelon slices from a new cooler devoted solely to fresh produce.

But it was a fleeting victory.

For nearly an hour after, no one among a steady stream of customers would grab another fruit or vegetable — instead, they went for the ice cream bars, cake slices, sweetened tea, sugary juice, beer, soda and bite-sized "hamburger" candies.

“To sell [produce], you have to change the attitude of how people eat,” said store co-owner William Troncoso. “It’s hard. People want the cake, the chocolate, the junk food.”

The city’s ubiquitous corner stores, like Mackey, are where adults scurrying to work or children heading home from school grab quick, cheap snacks.

One study found that some urban-school students buy more than 350 calories worth of junk food from such stores each day.

So in The Bronx — which suffers the city’s highest obesity rate and is home to five of the 10 city neighborhoods with the highest rates of diabetes-related deaths — health advocates have come to see these bodegas as nutritional battlegrounds.

Efforts are afoot to enhance the selection and display of healthful foods in many Bronx bodegas, while also trying to increase local demand for them.

In the Concourse area, the wellness coalition Bronx Health REACH has helped local schools “adopt” two bodegas, while also launching a mobile phone contest for bodega customers.

On the supply side, the group encouraged students and their parents to ask for healthier offerings at the stores; it also got a partner, the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, to donate a produce cooler and signs spotlighting healthy fare.

To spark demand, the group held a nutritional-food taste test for students this week with bodega-buyable snacks like hummus, guacamole and cheese sticks.

The contest, called #BodegaSnax, encourages shoppers to post and tag photos on Instagram of healthy bodega snacks — cut-up fruit, low-fat yogurt, smoothies and more — for a chance to win Yankees gear and tickets.

In Mott Haven, the anti-hunger nonprofit City Harvest and the nutrition-education agency Ironwill Foundation have teamed up to give Mackey a “healthy makeover.”

City Harvest gave Mackey the produce cooler last month. A retail consultant will visit the store periodically over the next several weeks to suggest other improvements, such as a produce reward card, pre-made salads, or wholesome lunch specials.

Ironwill led students from a nearby middle school on a field trip to Mackey and had them write the owners letters suggesting healthy snacks they would buy.

Meanwhile, the city’s Health Department recently expanded a program that helps small retailers carry and promote healthy food to Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point.

Last year, dozens of stores in the Fordham and West Farms neighborhoods that participated in the program’s first phase moved produce to more prominent spots, shifted water and low-calorie drinks to eye-level refrigerator shelves, stocked low-sodium canned goods, posted “Shop Healthy” marketing materials and made other improvements.

"Obviously, you're not going to change these into health-food stores," said Ironwill President Mark Scherzer. "But as long as you start to integrate this stuff, you start to see changes."

But for every newly available fruit cup, these bodega owners and health advocates have encountered a King-Size assortment of obstacles.

At one of the Concourse stores, for instance, cut-up fruit that didn’t sell quickly went bad, smoothies proved hard to prepare and to price as cheaply as those at McDonald’s, the produce cooler broke and a basket meant for bananas soon brimmed with candy, according to Bronx Health REACH’s Kelly Moltzen.

What’s more, the store owners found it difficult to get fresh produce to their stores and at least one major food manufacturer said it didn’t deliver snack-size baked chips, which are less fattening, to Bronx stores, Moltzen added.

“There are challenges at every level,” she said.

Mackey, the Mott Haven bodega by East 144th Street and Third Avenue, has had some successes, notably with its watermelons and pineapples.

While the whole fruits didn’t sell for $5, the $1 slices — up to eight per fruit — have been flying out of the cooler and a tin tray on the counter.

But the store’s food selection is still overwhelmingly sugary, salty and fatty and customer demand is still shaky — a six-year-old recently pointed out “the stuff SpongeBob eats” (pineapples, the owner explained), before his mother bought a bag of candy.

Still, other customers said they were eager for healthier options.

“There’s a Chinese restaurant, a liquor store, a pizza place on every corner — it’s all fast food,” said Pamela Larkin, 35.

She said she is sure that if the bodegas and other local stores sold appealing, easy-to-eat and affordable snacks that are also healthy, customers would gobble them up — a belief rooted in her experience working with children.

“If we offered them fruit for snacks,” she said, “they always went for it.”