By Tracie McMillan
City Limits • Oct. 23, 2006
The Bronx’s La Antillana supermarket is getting some stiff competition from an unlikely source: the schoolyard of P.S. 28, across East Tremont Avenue in the Mount Hope neighborhood. Last Thursday, public health leaders and community activists announced the Mount Hope Food Project, a new program aimed at preventing obesity by expanding access to healthy food.
The program’s cornerstone will be a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, where an upstate farmer brings fresh produce every week to program members at a low cost – roughly $11 per person each week. The ability to get fresh, quality food sold Altagracia deVilla, 44, a home health aide and single mother of three, on the CSA. “When the grocery store has nice fruit or nice vegetables, they raise the prices,” said deVilla, who uses her food stamp benefits to pay for the organic vegetables. “It’s very important, to have healthy food with no chemicals.”
“Changing eating habits is really necessary and important” for reducing obesity, said Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, an anti-hunger group helping to back the project. “But we won’t really succeed unless we change the food environment.”
The Mount Hope CSA’s low cost and acceptance of federal food stamps is the latest example of a growing trend among fresh-food programs: Accessibility to the poor. As government has begun to address questions of food access – Baltimore and the state of Pennsylvania both have initiatives encouraging supermarket development in underserved communities, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) introduced a bill to help bodegas stock healthy food earlier this year – some local food acolytes, including those behind the Mount Hope project, have moved in a similar direction.
The Bronx program should be affordable for Mt. Hope residents, where the median income is just $10,113, well below the city’s median of $27,233. And it’s an attempt to battle the neighborhood’s poor health. At P.S. 28 alone, roughly one quarter of the student body is overweight, and another quarter’s at risk for becoming so, said Megan Charlop, community health director of the Montefiore Medical Center School Health Program, which has run obesity prevention programs at P.S. 28 since 2004.
Though the CSA has been operating out of P.S. 28’s play yard for about a year, its incorporation into the Food Project – operating on $289,000 of federal Department of Agriculture funding, it’s one of just three programs receiving similar support in New York State – marks a sizeable expansion. Organizers expect to add another CSA at another site, expand on food and nutrition education classes already run by City Harvest in the school, and build a food garden on the school’s asphalt playground. What’s more, they’ll be recruiting local residents to help conduct a community food assessment, charting what kinds of food are available locally.
The idea is to make healthy eating an easy choice for families to make, said Jacquie Berger, executive director of Just Food, a city food justice group helping to administer the CSA. “If [the program] requires people to change things in a way that’s uncomfortable, people aren’t going to change the way they live,” said Berger. “But this makes it easy and natural and fun.”