12/21/2012 01:31 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Rebuilding Sandy-Afflicted Neighborhoods... With Healthy Food Options

As efforts progress to rebuild New York City neighborhoods significantly broken by Hurricane Sandy, we would be wise to address a lingering problem afflicting these and other communities: access to healthy food.

Many of the neighborhoods most affected by Sandy are among those that also experience the greatest food disparities in the region. Areas such as The Rockaways, Coney Island, Red Hook and Staten Island have been identified by our city health department as well as the USDA as "food deserts," meaning that available foods overwhelmingly consist of low-nutrition, high-salt, high-fat food options. The lack of fresh and healthy food in these communities is significantly tied to a lack of infrastructure -- literally a dearth of retail and restaurant outlets that can or do sell healthy foods.

As new political will rises to implement the long-term investments needed to protect our city from floods and weather-related destruction, it makes sense to consider the livelihoods and well-being of our neighbors as well.

This is a time for political, community and local business leaders to come together to think anew about the combined need of physical and food infrastructure to promote the health of our city.

New York City communities hardest hit by the storm have some of the highest rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions. While struggling with efforts to rebuild, some may be contending with diabetes, hypertension, increased rates of cancer, etc. These devastating health conditions -- and their financial toll -- will persist long after Sandy's impact is behind them. And they could increase if communities are not thoughtfully rebuilt.

These communities are also, in many ways, like any other NYC neighborhoods, filled with typical New Yorkers: folks working long hours, trying to raise families in an exciting city with many logistical challenges, who desire a wide variety of culturally appropriate, healthy and convenient food options to make the jigsaw puzzle of their lives work.

While Mayor Bloomberg's administration has advanced a tremendous array of healthy food initiatives across the city and in these high-risk neighborhoods, there is still much more to do.

I'm talking about rebuilding with the right mindset. Rather than simply recreating what was there prior to the storm, we should invest in rebuilding with long-view thinking that combines investment in infrastructure, food education and technical assistance to insure that every neighborhood-based food business in these communities (e.g., bodegas, groceries, quick service restaurants, bakeries, fish markets, meat markets, etc.) can provide their customers with more healthy, fresh and minimally prepared foods.

There are already innovative projects in the works. For example, my company Karp Resources just received seed funding to design a pilot program that will offer funding and consulting services to Sandy-affected food businesses that are willing to install salad bars, refrigeration and other infrastructure to make healthy food offerings a reality.

Extensive evidence has shown that individuals choose healthy food options when they are available. For example, the city's annual Community Health Survey indicates a significant increase in the consumption of healthy foods since the start of New York City Green Carts -- a mobile produce vending initiative Karp Resources has had the pleasure of advancing. In high-poverty neighborhoods served by the Green Carts, the percentage of adults who said they ate no fruits or vegetables in the previous day dropped from 19 percent in 2004 to less than 15 percent in 2010.

These studies are consistent with academic research that demonstrates fast food patrons overwhelming choose less caloric meals when such options are made more convenient, as well as data from other programs like the NYC Fresh Initiative and the New York State Healthy Food Healthy Communities program, which has provided incentives and investments to supermarkets offering produce options in food desert neighborhoods.

Such data shows that consumer demand is not lacking. New Yorkers in every corner of the city are voting with their sometimes very limited dollars, and their forks, illustrating a sharply growing demand for healthy, fresh food options. If we're serious about further encouraging these healthy habits, we can help make it happen, but only if we make access an even greater priority.

It's time to do so for New York City's storm-ravaged communities. Hurricane-induced fires and floods have made it necessary to rebuild, so why not rebuild with the long-term health of residents -- and increased business opportunities -- in mind? Infrastructure and long-view investments can make every NYC neighborhood a healthy community.