04/25/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Increase Fresh Food Access to Improve Health Outcomes

Conventional wisdom suggests that the neighborhoods near the world's largest produce market would be veritable fresh food paradises where locals have access to an endless array of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Hunts Point Produce Market, located on a 113-acre campus in the South Bronx, receives premium fruits and vegetables daily from 49 states and 55 countries, and provides 60 percent of New York City's produce. Every day a fleet of trucks delivers the market's fresh food throughout the five boroughs and the surrounding suburbs. Yet a miniscule amount gets distributed to the South Bronx, a community underserved by traditional supermarkets and green grocers. Far from being the fresh food paradises that they should be, these neighborhoods suffer from little available produce and few dining options beyond fast food chains.

The health consequences are stark. According to a 2008 study by the New York City Departments of Health (DOH) and City Planning and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, low-income neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores suffer high rates of diet-related diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. The South Bronx, the nation's poorest urban Congressional district, is among the hardest hit areas, with its county ranking dead last in health outcomes among all New York State counties.

To ensure that more of the Hunts Point Market's produce goes to the South Bronx and other underserved areas, more fresh food retail outlets are needed in these communities. With that in mind, the city created several programs: Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH), the Healthy Bodegas Initiative and the Green Cart program. These programs are well-intentioned, but, with a few smart reforms, they could become much more impactful.

FRESH provides zoning and financial incentives to grocers who open stores in New York's underserved communities, but so far the program has been underutilized with only three stores coming to the South Bronx since the program began. If the program is to achieve its goal, the city must do more to encourage the National Supermarket Association to promote it to its members.

Bodegas, because of their prevalence in low-income neighborhoods, present a great, untapped opportunity for year-round fresh food access. With the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, the DOH works with bodega owners to stock healthier foods, put fresh fruits and vegetables at eye level, and place water more prominently than soda. Bodega owners are unlikely to adopt the DOH's recommendations, however, unless it makes sense for their bottom line, and unlike FRESH, the Healthy Bodegas Initiative has no direct economic backing from the city. Incentives such as tax credits, if implemented, would encourage more storeowners to follow the Healthy Bodegas Initiative's guidelines and get healthier food options onto more neighborhood shelves more quickly.

Green Carts sell fresh produce exclusively in New York's underserved neighborhoods. Unfortunately, according to the latest data available on the Department of Health's website, only about half of the 1,000 Green Cart permits available have been issued. To improve these numbers, the city should enable vendors to undergo the permitting process in their home boroughs, rather than making the multiple trips to Manhattan required by the current process. Certain restrictions on Green Cart vendors, such as not being allowed to cut up fruit for customers or relocate indoors during the winter months, should be reconsidered. The city should also continue to support and expand Green Cart partnerships like the one it has with my organization, the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), a South Bronx nonprofit that trains vendors and provides cart storage space

Bringing produce retail outlets to underserved communities are important steps, but it's not the only tool at our disposal. Health education and changing eating behavior has to be part of the equation to ensure that there is a demand for healthy foods. Urban farms, like the one on the roof of WHEDco's Intervale Green building, empower community members to reduce their reliance on factory-processed foods and to better understand the food ecosystem.

The Hunts Point Market is currently negotiating a major redevelopment deal with city officials. If the deal is approved, the market will bring even more fresh produce to New York City. It's important that significant resources are devoted to ensuring that more of that produce stays at home in the South Bronx where it's needed most.