06/07/2012 08:03 am ET Updated Jun 07, 2012

Bloomberg's Soda Ban And The Epicenter Of The City's Obesity Crisis

Every morning, thousands of trucks roll out of a giant produce market in the Bronx bearing loads of arugula, chicory, escarole, radicchio and just about every other conceivable ingredient needed to make an amazing salad. The New York City Terminal Market is the largest wholesale produce market in the world. It employs more than 10,000 people, brings in around $2 billion a year and supplies nearly 60 percent of the city's shops and restaurants with fruit and vegetables. But if you live in the neighborhood, you might find yourself crossing an eight-lane expressway to get a tomato.

According to the Department of City Planning, the neighborhood, Hunts Point, is a "food desert" -– one of those enclaves of the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is hard to find. Most of the neighborhood's 11,000 families get their calories from fast-food restaurants and bodegas, said Maryann Hedaa, the managing director of the Hunts Point Alliance For Children.

In Hunts Point, it's still "the Wonder Bread, Spam, and Twinkie era," she said. "Salad, what's that?"

One person who would not have any trouble answering that question is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently incurred the derision of GOP lawmakers and a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom with his proposal to bar New York City's restaurants and movie theaters from selling large sugary drinks. "All across the country, people recognize obesity as a growing, serious problem," he said in an interview with the New York Post.

Nowhere in New York is the obesity problem worse than in the South Bronx. So what do the people of Hunts Point have to say about the mayor's latest attempt to get them to eat better?

"I think it's actually a good thing," said a young woman who'd stopped into a Hunts Point McDonalds -- one of the neighborhood's only sit-down restaurants. Unbelievably, the woman's last name was Sweet. Her first name was Daisy, and said she came to McDonald's after dropping off her five-year-old son at school. She looked healthy, even though she'd just emptied 17 packets of sugar (her count) into her extra-large cup of coffee. She said she tried to cook healthy meals for her son, but doing so required "dedication." There used to be a supermarket a few blocks from where she lives, she said, but it burned down.

"I'm really afraid with this," said Luis Perez, stopping for a brief chat outside a Dunkin Donuts across the street. Perez said he works in the neighborhood as a mechanic, and he, too, tries to keep his junk-food intake to a minimum. "But I'm really crazy with the soda," he admitted.

"I believe it is going to affect the economy worse," said Galo Morales, a construction worker from Ecuador, as he stood in a bodega on Hunts Point Avenue. The bodega's owner, Jamie Ovalles, agreed. Soda sales make up five percent of his income, he said, and he sells more 2-liter bottles than any other size. "When you buy big you pay less," he said. "And you know, the kids like the soda."

Hunts Point is one of the most isolated neighborhoods in the city. Water surrounds it on three sides; the remaining border is marked by the Bruckner Expressway. Together with the other neighborhoods of the South Bronx, it sits in the poorest congressional district in the country. Nearly half of all its children live below the poverty line, and many of them are overweight. At of 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, Hunts Point and the nearby neighborhood of Mott Haven had the city's highest rates of obesity, diabetes and death.

A more recent report found that nearly a third of all children enrolled in the area's Head Start programs were obese. These children and their families have little access to the enormous produce market next door, and many residents have been complaining about this for years. Some hope that the city will take these complaints into account as it negotiates a new contract with the market, which has recently entertained proposals to leave the Bronx for New Jersey.

The market "should be thinking about the residents as potential customers more, and the potential impact that they could have on the health of their community," said Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, the director of The Point, a community organization. Instead, it sits behind a series of concrete barriers that look like the bomb-blast walls seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Point is part of a growing "food-justice" movement in the neighborhood. It's one of a number of organizations that have tried to improve the food options in poor neighborhoods around the city by enlisting residents to protest, to lobby, to plant gardens in abandoned lots, to turn kids on to the pleasures of carrots and kale. The Point offers cooking classes to families, and a few years ago it invited a gourmet chef to open a café in its community center. Terry-Sepulveda said the chef, Kelston Bascom, had opened her eyes to new experiences. "I don't know if I'd ever had a relationship with … Oh my god, what's the odd-looking vegetable that looks like mini-cabbages? Maybe Brussels sprouts?"

The concept of the food desert has gained prominence in recent years, thanks in part to the advocacy of Michelle Obama. In too many neighborhoods, she said in October, "if people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid's lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it."

A pair of recent studies has called this wisdom into question. In March, a report published in the journal Social Science and Medicine revealed that poor neighborhoods had more supermarkets and large grocers per square mile than wealthier ones, and a study published in February in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found no relationship between the types of food people eat and the types available within a mile and a half of their homes.

But in Hunts Point, the only vegetables stocked by most of the grocery stores are the starchy ones that keep well -- potatoes, plantains, cassava. And the eight lanes of the Bruckner Expressway make a mile-and-a-half shopping trip feel much longer.

The produce market does grant some access to the public. For three dollars, people can buy a day pass that gets them through the gates -- if they have cars. In any event, Terry-Sepulveda said this wasn't enough. "Three dollars doesn't sound like a lot," she said, "but for immediate residents, that can seem a little excessive, especially considering it's the poorest congressional district in the country."

Those residents have to put up with the unpleasant facts of life near a food-distribution center, she said, like the 15,000 trucks that come and go each day. So it's only fair that the market use its influence to help them, she argued. "We don't have the lobbying power of a huge produce market," she said.

A spokesman for the market said he thought these complaints were unreasonable, and he insisted that the market was open to everyone. Told that a security officer turned away a reporter who tried to enter the market this morning, he declined to provide an explanation.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this articles incorrectly stated that the proposed soda ban wouldn't affect the sale of large bottles of soda in delis.