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Lady Linda’s two-for-one honeybun was the go-to for me when my mother was short on money to buy food for me to take for lunch. The jelly-filled and the iced ones were a dynamic duo like Kobe and Shaq, with a cold original Iced Tea Arizona for a grand total of three dollars. Who could complain about that? One thousand and sixty calories, 148 grams of carbs and 96 grams of sugar later, I found myself at the heaviest I’ve ever been—296 pounds—when I was a tenth grader. My body mass index was over 40, putting me in the obese category. Fighting high cholesterol and hypertension, I was trapped. I was in a food plague.
Residents in East Harlem are in the same position and fighting the same battles. East Harlem is an epicenter of the intertwining epidemics of obesity and diabetes in New York.
Economic Battles Faced in East Harlem
Economic stress is real and leads to poor eating options for the residents of East Harlem. East Harlem is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. According to the Furman Center, the poverty rate in East Harlem was 34.0 % compared to the citywide rate, which was 16% as of 2019. The Community Health Profile of 2018 shows that East Harlem’s unemployment rate is higher (11%) than the citywide average of 9%. A demographic from the Cuny School of Public Health shows that there has been a 9% drop in the Media Household Income from $33,815 in 2002 to $30,736 in 2013-2014. As of 2019, the median income was $34,060, about 53% less than the citywide median household income of $72,930. This creates a barrier for the community, as the ability to afford housing and employment opportunities is connected with “good health,” resulting in poor eating choices being made, leading to deadly consequences in East Harlem.
East Harlem is a Food Desert
There are several reasons why obesity is more prevalent in East Harlem than in other parts of the city. One factor is the limited access to healthy food options. East Harlem is considered a food desert, the most common food outlets in East Harlem, now as in 2000, are bodegas and fast food outlets that sell mostly unhealthy food. It still has among the worst health statistics in the city and reports high levels of both food insecurity and diet-related diseases. The lack of access to healthy food options can lead to higher consumption of processed and fast foods, which are typically high in calories, sugar, and fat. The Community Health Profiles 2018 East Harlem puts East Harlem’s danger into perspective. Leading to obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of premature death (death before the age of 65) in East Harlem, behind Cancer. The death rate before age 65 per 100,000 people with heart disease is 50.2 (279). A report from the East and Central Harlem District Public Health Office that was released in 2007 helps indicate some interesting key findings “Approximately 2 in 3 food stores in East and Central Harlem are bodegas, compared with 1 in 3 food stores polled on the Upper East Side.” Leafy green vegetables are available in 3% of East and Central Harlem bodegas, while 20% of Upper East Side bodegas offer leafy greens. These are the alerting findings that help put into perspective the problem being faced.
The Road to Elimination Begins Now.
While it seems like East Harlem residents are stuck in food purgatory, there are methods to help build positive “healthy” choices, no pun intended. Improving education and awareness is essential, beginning with the implication of Public Health Disciplines well, what exactly is that? The Public health discipline can be defined as the art of turning unhealthy communities into healthier places through education, research, and healthy lifestyles. Secondary to help aid the East Harlem residents, adding the discipline of epidemiology, which according to the CDC, is (a method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations.) This would be used as an outlet to connect obesity rates to the high poverty rates in East Harlem. (As the risk factor) the study will address the factors to protect the community from the disease. Such as creating programs to inform people of the community about the most common diseases that obesity can bring into an individual’s body (high blood pressure, diabetes and Cancer) and how this affects people within East Harlem’s premature death caused by number one killer, Cancer, followed by heart disease.
Moving Forward and Next Steps for East Harlem Residents
For any problem, there need to be steps to solutions. One solution for residents in East Harlem is helping families in East Harlem learn about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP. Inform families whether they are eligible and then apply to such programs, as SNAP “provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency,” as stated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. More farm markets so low-income people could use their SNAP to buy healthy food instead of unhealthy foods. Community leaders and officials must create more obesity prevention and healthy weight programs. Create more physical fitness programs in the community Implement a tax strategy to discourage the consumption of foods that have minimal nutritional value.
Looking Ahead for East Harlem
While there are still many questions left unanswered, the real one is whether East Harlem is ready to gear itself to take on this long-tenured battle. East Harlem residents need to be willing to be educated and be aware of this killer epidemiology occurring in their neighborhood. It requires levels of uncomfortability that residents will have to endure. Though in the end, a healthy life is a wealthy life. East Harlem, you’ve got work to do.
Words by Wilt Guerrero
Wilt Guerrero is an undergrad student at CUNY’s Hunter College, graduating this May with a degree in Media Studies. He is currently a middle school athletics coach at the Institute for Collaborative Education. He loves to teach his young students the importance of hard work as it always cancels out talent. Wilt empathizes with his students about health and the importance of being educated and seeking a healthy life. Wilt loves to see his kids play, learn, and grow.