Healthy Food Can Boost NY’s Health and Economy

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter December 2011

by Leonardo Blair

When the only supermarket in Highland Falls, a town in New York’s Mid-Hudson region, closed last year, the community lost its only daily fresh food outlet. But thanks to an investment from the New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities (HFHC) Fund, local residents Lisa Berrios and Albert Rodriguez brought back not only fresh food access, but jobs.

The couple opened MyTown Marketplace with financing from the HFHC, an innovative financing program created to revitalize New York neighborhoods by encouraging investment in healthy food retail. Along with providing access to healthy food for residents of Highland Falls, the new store created eight full-time and 19 part-time jobs, a boon for the town’s health and economy.

Across New York, communities are discovering that economic growth and good health can go hand-in-hand when investments are made in increasing the availability of healthy foods.

“People are hungry for it (farmers’ markets),” said Travis Tench, Co-founder and Marketing Manager ofEcostation:NY, a non-profit organization that manages three farmers’ markets in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “They want good food and they want to eat well.”

New York is second only to California as the state with the most farmers’ markets in America, according to a report this year from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The number of farmers’ markets increased from 235 in 2000 to 520 and counting in 2011, a more than 120% increase.

This uptick in demand for farmers’ markets in New York State has provided benefits beyond the individual purchases. In Oswego, the Chamber of Commerce reported ten new small businesses opening downtown to take advantage of the customer spillover from the farmers’ market. While the markets attract shoppers to the surrounding area, studies also show that farmers’ market vendors tend to reinvest in the communities where they work by purchasing their supplies locally. Markets yield a significant multiplier effect to the economy: each dollar market managers spend in small town markets results in $1.65 spent in a given region and up to $2.27 for each dollar spent by a market manager in a large city.

For Ecostation:NY, the effect has also been positive. When it was founded in 2009, the organization only had a staff of one. Less than three years later they have five full-time workers, three farmers’ markets and operate a farm at the Bushwick Campus High School. “We work with students and teachers. We grow food there, sell it at the markets, and the proceeds go back to the project at the school,” said Mr. Tench.

Ecostation:NY also shares the market with local vendors from the community like bakers and honey producers by providing them with space at the market to sell their goods. “We really work to promote these entrepreneurs,” he said. Most of the farmers participating in the Bushwick markets are from upstate New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and “they seem to be happy. They see that the people are receiving them well,” said Mr. Tench.

In Herkimer County, innovative thinkers have added a technological twist to their healthy food strategy. With a grant from The Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties, Inc., Herkimer County Healthnet launched awebsite in June promoting farmers’ markets in the area. While the resource has been a helpful guide to healthy eating for the community, the farmers and the community stand to gain from the economic activity generated by purchasing farm fresh foods.“We have had some feedback from the farmers’ market managers and they like the website,” said Adam Hutchinson, Executive Director of Herkimer County Healthnet, who also hopes to add a buying club to the site where shoppers can pre-order their produce.

Older Adults Charging on Biking Trails

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senior man on road bike, looking at camera. Copy space

Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

Biking is trending on a tear across New York and older adults are leading the fit pack in cycling tours upstate. This trend now has New York State ranked third in the nation behind Vermont and Alaska as the state with the highest levels of bicycling and walking according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

For the last four years, participants in the 400 mile Cycling the Eerie Canal bike tour have numbered consistently at 500; well above the 75 participants the tour attracted in its first year according to Al Hastings, bike tour director of Parks & Trails New York . And while a fair number of families with children have been on the tour, it’s the growing number of 50-year-olds who have been fueling the growth.

“The average age of the cyclists is in the low fifties,” said Mr. Hastings who predicts aging boomers will help sustain interest in the tour over time. “People who are older have the time and the money to invest in this type of activity. Older people nowadays also tend to be more active, so it bodes well for cycling,” he said.

This increased interest in cycling is a positive development for New York. Research shows that states with the highest levels of bicycling and walking have the lowest levels of obesity, hypertension and diabetes and have the greatest percentage of adults who meet the recommended 30-plus minutes per day of physical activity.

While there are no exact statistics to reflect the current demand and interest in cycling in Upstate New York, Eric Ophardt, head of the NYSDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Section, said if the demand for maps of bike trails in New York State is anything to go by, cycling is trending high.

“The request for maps is huge,” said Mr. Ophardt. “I am getting more and more requests for materials from people in and out of the state.” Keep cycling New York!

In Niagara Falls City, All Classes are Active

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

After being hit with troubling rates of childhood obesity and watching the effects of a grueling academic schedule take its toll on elementary school children, the Health and Wellness Committee of the Niagara Falls City School District urged teachers to include physical activity in the curriculum for every class in 2009.

Now, three years later, the concept of playing while learning has become a hit.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how supportive the teachers were,” said Rocco Merino, assistant Principal of Harry F. Abate Elementary School and member of the City’s Health and Wellness Committee.

The recommendation was driven in part by concern over the obesity rates in Western New York and the need to keep students engaged. “Obesity was a part of it (the decision),” said Mr. Merino. “A lot of the data we have looked at for Western New York does point to childhood obesity being a huge issue.”

Kindergarten teacher Wendy Maggadino said while she was supportive of the recommendation, her first reaction to it was sheer intimidation.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I already had so many things to do during the school day; I didn’t know where I was going to find the time.”

But after some creative thinking, Ms. Maggadino developed a plan. She noticed that her students generally spent long periods on bathroom breaks and saw it as the perfect opportunity to encourage her students to come back to class quickly. Shortly after their lunch break and just before her Math class she introduced her students to Deskercise – a once a day classroom fitness series hosted by a character called Slim Goodbody. The series incorporates physical activity into subjects like history and geography. Now, Deskercise is like an essential vitamin.

“The kids are so motivated by it,” said Ms. Maggadino. “It gets the children to hurry up and do what they need to do to get back to class.”

“The day was so jam-packed with academics we needed to find something to break it,” added Mr. Merino. “The kids look forward to it. Just to do something to get them out of their seats. We try to tell the teachers to put themselves in their shoes.”

The initiative has been so successful at the Harry F. Abate Elementary School they have now decided to take their physical activity up a notch.

“We started a walking club about a month or so ago and it’s something the kids and teachers are excited about. I sent out an e-mail to the staff and within two days almost half of the teachers responded,” said Mr. Merino.

Recess for Success

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

A trend in some schools to eliminate recess to meet increasingly demanding academic schedules is being challenged by new research. Children who engage in daily active recess, says the new data, tend to do better in class and are healthier.

Some advocates in New York are also concerned about the level of physical activity students are getting during recess and the effect it can have on obesity rates. “What we are encouraging schools to do is to make recess active but I think the schools are under such demands it makes it real tough,” said Thomas Hohensee, project coordinator at Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown, NY. “If we got many schools ensuring that students are a lot more active during recess, it would have some effect (on obesity rate),” he said.

More than eight in 10 principals reported in The State of Play: A Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess, that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement and two-thirds of them say students listen better after recess and are more focused in class. And seven-year-old New York City student, Amadin Collette agrees. He shudders to imagine what his school days would be like if he didn’t get to play at recess.

“If you don’t get a lot of energy out you’re gonna be hype [sic] the whole day,” he said. “I would feel tired if there was no recess.” For Amadin, recess is also more than just releasing energy. During play time, “I learn how to not overreact. I can think better about what I can do and make good choices,” he said.

In Recess Rules, Why the undervalued playtime may be America’s best investment for healthy kids and healthy schools, researchers note that recess represented the single largest opportunity for elementary school children between the first and sixth grades to engage in physical activity during the school day. Schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment and the lowest income levels are also most likely to have fewer minutes of recess or none at all.

A number of organizations have already taken note across the state and are working to ensure that students are active in schools. Healthi Kids, an initiative of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency and an advocate of active recess, successfully pushed for the School District in Rochester to put in place a policy which guarantees at least 20 minutes of daily supervised unstructured recess for students. The new policy is currently being piloted at two schools and will go districtwide in the fall.

PLAYWORKS, a national nonprofit organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to low-income schools at recess and throughout the entire school, began working to address this problem for a few schools in Brooklyn, New York just over a year ago.

“Principals saw recess as a chaotic time,” said Adeola Whitney, executive director of PLAYWORKS Greater Newark/Greater New York. “Students weren’t getting enough physical activity and that chaos was spilling over in the classroom. We mitigate a lot of that chaos by teaching them conflict resolution and getting them to spend more time on play and physical activity,” she said.

In just one year, they have already started seeing positive results. “I was just at PS 11 last month and both principals and teachers spoke about recess as a much more pleasant time for all and much of what the children are learning is carrying over into the classroom,” said Ms. Whitney.

Incentives for Food Retailers Deliver Fresh Food and Create Jobs

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter September 2012

By Perrin Braun

Inspired by Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), New York has been taking some bold moves in order to improve both the health and the economy of the state. Since launching in 2004, the FFFI has become a national model for increasing access to fresh foods in underserved communities. The program has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties. Not only did over half a million people gain improved access to healthy food, but more than 5,023 jobs were also created or preserved as a result of the program. Lesson learned: the investment of a supermarket in an urban setting had a significant impact on food access, employment, and earnings on a county level. You can read more about details of the FFFI impact assessments here.

Encouraged by the success in Pennsylvania, then-Governor David Paterson announced the creation of the New York Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative in 2009, which sought to increase access to healthy food in New York’s underserved communities. The goal of the New York program was two-fold: 1) support the direct development of jobs in these communities, and 2) meet the financing needs of market operators who want to do business in underserved communities, but do not have access to financing through the conventional credit market.

The program grew quickly, thanks to an allocation of $10 million in the state’s budget, which was used to create a revolving loan fund to finance grocery store projects. By 2010, the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund was announced as a public-private partnership after Goldman Sachs Group, Inc committed another $20 million that would be put towards funding for for-profit, nonprofit, or cooperative food markets that are located in underserved areas across New York State.

The results of the program were overwhelmingly positive: since October 2010, more than $6,134,996 million in capital has been deployed through New York’s Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund. The investment has created, enhanced, or preserved 67,500 square feet of food retail space serving an estimated 24,000 people. It has also created or preserved 204 full-time equivalent permanent jobs and approximately 132 construction jobs .

John Gage, owner of Conklin Reliable Market, a second generation, family-run market that serves a low-to-moderate income area in Conklin, NY, was the first applicant to be approved for a grant from New York’s Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund. Thanks to the funding that he received, Gage used the money to add additional shelves to his fresh produce section, which resulted in a significant increase in the sale of fresh produce.

“Sales are up,” he announced happily. “Produce sales are up 10 percent more.” He pointed out, however, that while the State’s efforts were commendable, a lot more needs to be done to get people to eat healthier. “It’s all about education, not necessarily just providing access,” Gage said.

Aside from the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, New York State is taking many more proactive steps to increase residents’ access to healthy food. For instance, The New York State Healthy Food / Healthy Communities Initiative is an innovative program administered jointly by Empire State Development and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, which provides capital in the form of grants and loans to support the development of fresh food retailers in underserved urban and rural communities across New York State. The statewide program meets the financing needs of market operators that plan to operate in underserved communities where infrastructure costs and credit needs cannot be filled. Additionally, thanks to the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program in NYC, a permanent farmer’s market grant program and financial incentives for food markets to be green and energy efficient have been established. The FRESH Program has been providing zoning and financial incentives to property owners, developers, and grocery store operators in areas underserved by grocery stores since 2009.

Finally, in November 2011, NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to Washington lawmakers. The legislation proposed an ambitious agenda that would significantly bolster efforts in New York and across the country to eliminate food deserts. $32 million was appropriated for fiscal year 2012 to fund food retail outlets in underserved communities in the U.S. This funding is intended to bolster nationwide efforts to remove barriers to access to fresh and healthy foods—especially in low-income communities and communities of color where food deserts are present. It will also help to revitalize communities by establishing healthy food retail and by creating and preserving quality jobs for local residents. Improving access to healthy food can benefit the economy!