by Sarah Wali
For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him.
“All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said. “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that. They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “
With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down. Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition.
Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets. The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations.
Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration. They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price.
Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists. Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer. She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice.
Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx. For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing. According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city. They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices.
Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping.
“Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello. “It’s cheaper.”
Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents. The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand. She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it.
Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats. Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale. At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello. She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun.
Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said. “I might as well buy it in a can. It lasts longer and is cheaper.”
Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season. Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each.
Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle. She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50. Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5.
Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef. Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives.
Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5.
Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce. They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack, she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce.
“Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said. “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.”
Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run. She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too. Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.