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Lack of Organic and Quality Brand Foods in Black Neighborhoods in NYC and How it Impacts Our Health

We have a problem. In many predominantly black neighborhoods nationally, including NYC, there is a lack of quality brands, non-GMO, and organic foods.  Historically, when discussing the lack of access to food in certain neighborhoods in America, we discussed food deserts.  These are neighborhoods where access to fresh, quality food is unavailable due to limited or no supermarkets. I live in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY. The neighborhood is 2.9 square miles and a population of 136,000. In my neighborhood, there are grocery stores and supermarkets, but they carry limited selections, most of which are low-quality brands. Do you ever notice that the brands differ in different neighborhoods?  Doesn't everyone have the right to access wholesome, nutritious, high-quality foods?  I can hardly buy real juice in my neighborhood. The only options are Tropicana and Minute Maid, which contain many added sugars and preservatives. There are three grocery stores (C-Town, Caribbean supermarket, and Ideal supermarket) and three fruit and veggie stands but no organic fruits and vegetables. As a vegan and conscious eater, I prefer to consume natural, organic foods including organic canned beans, frozen and fresh fruits, cereals, grains, snacks, juices and vegetables.  

What we eat significantly affects our health, so it's bigger than just food.  Not having organics accessible in my neighborhood heavily affects me. I must shop outside my neighborhood to get the quality fruits and vegetables I want, an inconvenience that leads me to settle for lower-quality food too often. I feel this compromises my health. Diseases like diabetes and heart disease are leading in black communities.  Could this be linked to  the lack of direct access to quality and organic foods? In comparison, in predominantly white neighborhoods, even the local grocery stores have organic food and various quality brand options. Not to mention, they have direct access to top-tier stores like Wholefoods and Trader Joe's, which have an ample amount of healthy food choices. 

The food quality on supermarket shelves in NYC differs in different neighborhoods depending on location, income, and race.  For example, Essential Foods Brand has many products, from frozen vegetables to canned goods, that I find in my neighborhood.  It is a low-cost option for these products. The supermarkets in my aunt's neighborhood in Malverne, Long Island typically carry a wide section of organic vegetables and fruits, organic frozen and canned foods, juices, bread, quality meats, etc. At the same time, it is hard to find these options in my neighborhood. Everyone should have the opportunity to eat well and access healthy food options.

Black neighborhoods have a disadvantage, as they typically receive less government funding, leading to a vicious cycle of lack. This lack of funding affects many areas, including nutrition. In the article "Healthy Food Is a Right for Black People, Not a Privilege" by Maya Feller, she states, "Across the country, Black communities are disproportionately underfunded, resulting in a significant gap. Racism affects nutrition as a social determinant of health that has a major influence on Black people's access to healthy food." Why are Black neighborhoods underfunded?  Is it because of a lack of representation in the political process? Or a lack of voting power?  In any case, there are major ramifications with regard to the quality of life in Black neighborhoods.

'In black neighborhoods, for the most part, people tend not to get involved. When you're not using the community as a voice and going as a collective power to stand for a cause together, saying, "we're not going to take this, and we need this," I think the powers that be will respond,' Ms. Juste expresses. Rather than challenging the system as a single individual, if many of us started to write our senators and local leaders and demand our needs be met collectively, a change would happen. The white community often does this, setting committees, neighborhood watches, etc. There is more of a sense of community and organization that happens. I have not seen this community organization and advocacy level in my neighborhood. "If we don't take control of our resources, we'll forever be controlled and given the scraps," Aharon states.  

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Racism comes in many forms, and one seems to spill into the next creating an ugly web of lack that is hard to become undone. The way black people eat stems from a long history of racism. In the article "Slave Food: The Impact of Unhealthy Eating Habits on The Black Community" by Jazz Keyes, the author states, "As survivors, slaves took what was given to them and made meals for their families. However, this style of cooking was birthed out of survival. Since then, we have passed these same dishes from generation to generation without realizing that this style of cooking is killing us slowly." African Americans created soul food from what was available, which was the leftovers from the tables of white families. Even in the Caribbean, the staple diet tends to be rooted in lack. This history is translated into the eating habits of today. This diet shows how systemic racism has affected the Black community for generations. And it is no accident that the fast-food menus reflect the soul food diet. The soul-food diet is high in sodium, sugar, and fats which leads to many health conditions.

During Covid, it was seen that Black neighborhoods suffered disproportionately because of the large number of underlying medical conditions. Black people tend to have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension compared to their white counterparts, which is directly related to eating habits and lifestyle choices. Food has a direct impact on our health. What we eat is important. In the article "Equitable Access to Organic Foods: Why it matters" by Christian Martinez, the author states, "People of color already suffer health disparities compared to whites—and these medical conditions are often sustained or worsened by a diet that lacks sufficient nutrients and is high in sugar and sodium. Obesity is higher among African American and Latino adults than among whites. In 2015-2016, the obesity rates were 47 percent and 37 percent, respectively." This is evidenced by the ratio of fast-food restaurants and liquor stores in black low-income neighborhoods. It is high compared to the number of supermarkets that supply fresh, organic, and quality brand foods. Black people's lifestyle is connected to their environment.

The economic disparity that exists amongst black people causes them to lean on more convenient and cheaper food options, not considering nutrition and health. You can get more for your dollar at fast-food restaurants, especially when trying to feed a big family. Also, homecooked meals aren't always an option in two-parent or even single-parent working households.  Who has time to make a home-cooked meal? In black and Latino communities, the family number is usually bigger, and with long work hours, there is less time to shop and prepare a home-cooked meal. "There are a lot of fast foods restaurants and stores in our communities which is a factor that impacts our health. When you're hungry and don't have the time, it's very easy to just stop in a McDonald's, Bks, or Popeyes. In communities that are more gentrified, you don't see it so readily available," Ms. Juste explains.  

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Solutions for The Lack of Organic Food In Black Neighborhoods

Black communities have suffered much due to circumstances and systematic racism, seriously affecting our quality of life. Change must happen to begin closing these long-standing health divides associated with access to healthy, organic, and quality foods in low-income neighborhoods. We must unite to educate, inspire, organize, fund-raise, and petition for help.  We must boldly create solutions and know we can create a better future for ourselves. A few solutions include:


Create urban farms


We need to create more urban farms and gardens within the cities and partner with these farms to host local farmer's markets. Also, we should partner with organic farmers to teach people natural ways of growing food so that the community can incorporate regenerative farming methods in their gardens. Aharon Ben Keymah, an organic farmer says, "people will get a healthier yearly harvest by not using chemicals and GMOs." Aharon shares how we can change the narrative. He says, "When we create more small community gardens and for-profit farms within our neighborhoods, we will be able to eradicate these food deserts and have more control over the quality of foods we have access to."


Boycott and demand funding


We must create community organizations to galvanize community support around these issues. We can use this support to organize boycotts of businesses that will not meet our needs. When asked how we can change this narrative, Ms. Juste replies, "Choose to boycott, for me that's my way, like you don't provide what I need, I don't give you my money. If enough of us did that, they would get it. If there's no demand for it, why should they provide it? If people are buying what's there, then why should they change? But if more and more people say I'm not going to shop there because you don't have organic or quality items, they'll feel it in their pockets and have to provide what the actual need is for the community." Moreover, petition local government officials for support in making changes. By working with local government leaders to highlight community issues and help direct funding to local initiatives.


Raise awareness and education

Create community programs working with schools, churches, and youth organizations. Teaching about the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, highlighting the negative impact fast food has on the human body and mind, the benefits of eating more organic and fresh produce, and the seriousness of being conscious of what you're purchasing by reading the ingredients and eating in moderation. In addition, we can encourage and reward school initiatives to highlight health and nutrition education.


These solutions will benefit in shrinking the gap between neighborhoods and help increase resources in underfunded black communities.  

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Ahshreyah R.

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