Food Issue: Smart Food

Cornering the Market: Shopping in bodegas is bad for your health.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Dec. 3, 2008

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Photograph by Michael Persico

Bloggers Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam are hungry. They also happen to be broke. Lucky for them the two live in the Bronx, the poorest urban county in the country, and have ample access to the wonderful bundle of awesome known as the bodega--a tiny shop filled to the gills with an assortment of processed crap no human should eat on a regular basis.

In a YouTube video, the pair roll through the bodega, racking up a cart full of what they dub the "bodega food groups"--tasty, salty, sugary cheap treats that will put you on the fast track for diabetes and obesity should you eat enough of them. (You'll notice that both Penn and Kam are quite hefty.)

"When you walk into a bodega, the first section you have to start with are snack cakes," says a deadpan Penn. "They're the most nutritious food group within the bodega. You've got your iced honey bun food group. And they're two for a dollar."

This pattern continues throughout the vid--crunchy mini donuts, two cream-filled chocolate chip cookies for 25 cents, pork rinds, ice cream sandwiches, "quarter water" (water, food dye and high fructose corn syrup sold in bottles for 25 cents) and the "yellow food group" (yellow chips, yellow soda and a yellow pie)--are all picked up for startlingly low prices. "You can eat like a king for around a dollar," says Penn proudly.

The video is both humorous and sobering, a searing commentary about the choices confronting people who live in economically depressed areas. Those choices, according to researchers at Yale University, are much as you'd expect: not great.

The study by scientists at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has relevance in Philadelphia, where cheap eats are in ample supply in neighborhoods where you're more likely to spot a unicorn than organic fruit and vegetables.

The study found that healthy foods are significantly harder to find and that produce tends to be of poorer quality in low-income areas. Using a standardized rating system, the researchers evaluated supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores, food marts and grocery stores to get a better understanding of the challenges facing food shoppers. They found that many of these stores in low-income areas are missing things some people take for granted--low-fat or skim milk, whole wheat bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.

The findings in the Yale study are significant, and could, perhaps, be used to explain another study done in 2007 by Stanford researchers, who found that living in poor neighborhoods raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.

In addition to physical inactivity and smoking, poor nutrition is one of the reasons cited for the higher occurrences of those particular health risks.

"This has implications for how we use our healthcare dollars," said Felicia LeClere, a Ph.D. researcher with the Population Studies Center, to Medical News Today shortly after the study was published.

Chances are she'd be a fan of Penn and Kam's work.

LeClere said, "We need to rethink health problems to include factors in neighborhoods, such as building neighborhood parks and providing accessible grocery stores with quality, affordable produce. Everybody deserves to live in a healthy neighborhood."

Healthier neighborhoods mean wealthier neighborhoods--with no access to the yellow food group.

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1. anthonybarba said... on Dec 2, 2008 at 04:10PM

“Here's the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11nsZ3lEWD0 This link should be good until 2000 forever.”

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