Tough to Eat Healthy in Some Neighborhoods

STATEN ISLAND, NY – STAPLETON/CLIFTON — Something as simple as an apple is a luxury for many on Staten Island’s North and East shores.

In focus groups with City Harvest, youngsters aged 6 to 17 listed the foods they typically purchase in Stapleton and Park Hill: Pizza, chicken, mozzarella sticks, burgers, fries, honey buns, donuts, beef patties, Chinese food, Mexican food, chips, candy, and 50-cent generic-brand “bummy sodas.”

ecent studies reveal the result: Residents of these areas are prone to obesity and nutrition-related health problems, in part because they consume inadequate portions of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The consumers tend to know which foods are healthy, according to a recent community food assessment, but they often fail to maintain a balanced diet because of tight budgets and poor access to supermarkets.

City Harvest, the Manhattan-based non-profit agency that feeds New York’s hungry, conducted the study that focused on Stapleton and the Park Hill section of Clifton.

“We recognize there is a spectrum of needs in addition to emergency food,” said Jennifer McLean, vice president of program operations for City Harvest, discussing the study at a workshop held last week at St. John’s University’s Grymes Hill campus. “With this assessment we addressed why access is limited and asked the community to offer solutions.”

Chief among the barriers to healthy food consumption, the researchers concluded, is poor access to healthy, affordable foods.

The only two supermarkets serving the neighborhoods, Waldbaum’s and Western Beef, are nearly a mile away from both the Park Hill Apartments and the subsidized Stapleton Houses. Limited transportation compounds the problem, according to the study, as buses are infrequent and residents of Park Hill require transfers to reach their closest supermarket. More than 10 percent of the food shoppers surveyed by City Harvest paid for car services to taxi them home with their grocery bags, adding to the cost of shopping.

Various recent studies have pointed to the need for supermarkets on the North Shore. City Planning identified Stapleton and St. George among the neighborhoods most in need of supermarkets citywide. A City Limits study in 2004 reported that 138,283 Staten Islanders have more McDonald’s than grocery stores in their ZIP codes. North Shore residents have unsuccessfully petitioned grocery providers, including FreshDirect and Trader Joe’s, to serve the area.

Limited access to supermarkets makes residents reliant on abundant convenience stores and fast food outlets. These are stocked with limited varieties of poor-quality staples at higher prices, City Harvest reported. Food prices also turn healthy eating into an economic calculus.

Poverty constrains Americans’ ability to eat healthy foods nationwide, and 60 percent of those surveyed by City Harvest reported having trouble stretching their food dollars until the end of the month. Junk foods tend to be much cheaper, calorie for calorie, than fresh produce. And they are readily available.

Anecdotal evidence in the community food assessment suggests that young people in the area may have particularly deficient diets. “I would say, if I had to make up a statistic, that 75 percent of the teens walk into the teen room after school with food in their hands,” a local librarian told City Harvest. “That’s one of our biggest problems in the teen room. They all complain about having no money, but every day they have enough to buy a 20-ounce bottle of soda and chips. Every day.”

Liberian residents in Park Hill discussed generational patterns of food consumption, reporting that elders consume traditional African fresh foods, while youth prefer commercial fast food. Some suggested that cooking classes would help both youngsters and adults know what to do with vegetables that languish in their refrigerators. Community members, speaking with City Harvest, expressed a clear demand for healthier food access, according to the study.

More affordable produce, establishing community gardens, improving the quality of produce at corner stores, organizing cooking and childcare clubs, and arranging shuttle buses to supermarkets were among their suggestions. At a recent workshop, Staten Island stakeholders and service providers discussed various strategies to improve the local food environment, including establishing youth-run produce markets, courting large-scale supermarkets, and lobbying leaders to make food initiatives in the area a priority.

Tevah Platt covers the North and East shores of Staten Island for the Advance. She can be reached at

By the numbers

City Harvest’s community food assessments indicates Stapleton and Clifton are high-risk areas for community health.

  • 11.2 percent of residents have diabetes, vs. 9.7 percent citywide.
  • 33.8 percent of residents are obese or overweight, vs. 20 percent citywide.
  • 83 percent do not meet the recommended level of physical activity.
  • 60 percent of survey respondents say they have trouble stretching food dollars to the end of the month.
  • 82 percent of survey respondents eat less than three servings of produce per day.