A Transformation, Block by Block
Some of the youngest residents are leading the charge to promote healthy eating. At the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, which runs afterschool and summer programs in the Crotona neighborhood, members of its Teen Council receive nutrition education from a dietitian affiliated with St. Barnabas Hospital. In turn, the teens share this knowledge with younger children and even lead activities, such as trips to farmers’ markets to try new fruits or vegetables. The Teen Council also works with local restaurants on Tremont Avenue to encourage owners to serve healthier items.
“A lot of people don’t know what they eat may be bad for them,” says 13-year-old Andy Fernandez, a Teen Council member. “I try to get them out of their bad habits.” He convinced a relative to cut back on soda, educating her about the link between sugary drinks and the risk of diabetes.
Everyone in the Bronx, it seems, knows someone with diabetes. For New York City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, that includes his mother, grandmother and uncle. In the Fordham and Bronx Park neighborhoods, which he represents, nearly 15 percent of the population is diabetic, the highest rate in the city.
“You have an epidemic quietly and undeniably devastating our neighborhoods,” he says.
To address the problem of obesity, several health care and community organizations are partnering with New York City’s department of health to increase the sale of healthy foods in local corner stores. Montefiore is using patient data to identify neighborhoods with both a high concentration of obese residents and corner stores that typically don’t carry fresh, healthy foods. Bilingual Montefiore staff is working with nearly 40 store owners in multiple neighborhoods to encourage them to stock and promote healthier food using a curriculum created by the local health department. Neighborhood groups, in turn, are being asked to pledge support for those grocers.
In addition, the Institute for Family Health (IFH)—one of the largest community health centers in New York State—has partnered with the Bodega Owners Association and local community organizations to work with bodegas in the south Bronx. IFH is educating bodega owners on best small business practices that include selling and marketing healthy foods in their stores. Since 2012, Urban Health Plan has successfully partnered with numerous local bodegas to increase the sale and marketing of healthy foods.
Making it easier for Bronx residents to eat healthy food is only one piece of the health puzzle. Across the borough, coalitions have come together to tackle everything from increasing access to open green space to addressing chronic diseases and disparities in access to health care.
The Bronx River Alliance is reviving and reclaiming the once-neglected waterway. The 23-mile river runs from upper Westchester County through the heart of the Bronx, where it eventually meets the East River and Long Island Sound. The alliance is leading a strong grassroots effort to create the Bronx River Greenway, a system of parks and trails along the entire length of the river. A new addition is a waterfront park with a boat launch that is set amid the remains of a former concrete plant.
Over on the East River, South Bronx Unite—a coalition of residents and organizations working to improve conditions in their neighborhood—is advocating for more waterfront access. Today, all that passes for open space in the Mott Haven and Port Morris sections of the Bronx is a trash-strewn stretch of rocky riverfront.
Another community-based coalition, South Bronx Rising Together, focuses on the connection between education and health. Supporting the needs of children from “cradle to college,” physicians, educators, public health experts and community organizers work from the evidence-based premise that unhealthy students are less successful in school. In the Bronx, that especially means tackling asthma. Asthma rates in the South Bronx are more than double the overall rate in New York City.
“Asthma is a health issue that contributes most to chronic absenteeism from school,” says Elizabeth Clay Roy, co-director of South Bronx Rising.
The coalition analyzes asthma “hotspots” in neighborhoods where rates are particularly high. Using city and hospital data like a scalpel, they pinpoint buildings with multiple housing code violations; “311” emergency calls about rodents, which can trigger asthma episodes; and a high concentration of asthma sufferers with recurring emergency room visits.
The coalition understands that it’s not enough to simply collect the information; they act on it by targeting outreach and services in those particular buildings. The group brings medical providers into the community to speak with parents where they live about prevention tips; those providers provide free testing for at-risk kids and direct families to city services.