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Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

Bronx food stamp recipients say no to ban on sugary drinks

At some Bronx grocery stores, drinks like Coca-Cola Classic, Fanta Orange, Nestea and Seagram’s Ginger Ale are cheaper than water. A recent weekly special at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood offered five 1.5-liter bottles of Coca-Cola for $5, while advertising the same-sized bottles of Poland Spring water for $7.45. The incentive to buy drinks that promote obesity and diabetes can be seen and heard loud and clear on the supermarket shelves in the Bronx.
Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Sugary drinks on sale at C-Town Supermarket in the Belmont neighborhood. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson want to discourage people -- that is, poor people -- from consuming too much sugar, by banning food stamp recipients from using their benefits to buy certain sugary drinks. Many Bronx residents believe this effort unfairly targets the poor, and worry about what's next on the mayor's hit list. “If you drink too much of anything it’s not a good thing,” said Irving Scott, a Bronx carpenter, who receives food stamps and believes he's responsible enough to moderate his own behavior. “Let people have the freedom to buy what they want.” Outside a Fine Fare Supermarket in Hunts Point, another construction worker said the proposal felt like discrimination. “I think we should be able to have the same benefits as everyone else,” said Richard Cruz, who also relies on food stamps. “We aren’t even able to get hot sandwiches right now; they have to be cold.” On Arthur Avenue, Virginia Martinez, who uses her food stamps to buy soda, found the proposal invasive. “Bloomberg is over-doing it,” she said. “This time it’s soda – what’s next?” Under the two-year plan, food stamp recipients would not be able use their electronic benefit transfer cards – the card recipients use to buy subsidized food – to buy drinks that contain more than the equivalent of one packet of table sugar in a 12-ounce serving. The only exceptions would be milk products, milk substitutes and fruit juices without any added sugar. “The [food stamp] program has always excluded certain categories of products without nutritional value – like cigarettes and alcohol – and we believe that a strong case can be made for adding sugary drinks to that list,” Bloomberg said. Many New York City residents are asking how far is too far, but particularly in the Bronx, where according to the U.S. Census, nearly one-quarter of Bronx residents received food stamps in 2007. If approved by the United States Department of Agriculture, food stamp recipients in New York City could not use their benefits to buy sugary drinks. Other items already excluded from the food stamp program, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, include tobacco, liquor, vitamins, medicine, pet food, paper products, hot food and household supplies. This proposal is not the first time elected officials have tried to block access to sugary drinks. In 2004, the Minnesota Department of Human Services asked the United States Department of Agriculture to ban sugary drinks and candy from food stamp purchases. The federal agency rejected the proposal, claiming it would cause customer stigma at supermarket cash registers and the belief that low-income people do not buy nutritious foods. According to the department of agriculture, research showed that food stamp recipients are wise shoppers and their nutrient intakes are similar to those of higher income consumers. In a related attempt earlier this year in New York, Gov. Paterson pushed for a penny-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks to help narrow the state’s $9.2 billion budget gap, but lawmakers eventually slashed the proposal from the revenue bill after the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes released series of unrelenting anti-tax ads. One of the ads featured a woman saying, “Tell Albany to trim their budget fat, and leave our grocery budgets alone.” Now Bloomberg and Paterson are preparing for round two – this time with a proposal that applies to only food stamp recipients in New York City. “There’s no denying that childhood obesity is an epidemic, and there’s no denying that it’s hurting our children in low-income communities the most,” said Bloomberg. “Eliminating these beverages from allowable food stamp purchases would give New York families millions of more dollars to spend on food and drinks that provide real nourishment to them and their children." Unlike the Minnesota plan, the current proposal focuses only on sugary drinks, not both candy and sugary drinks. But health officials say it is enough to put a dent in sugary drink sales, especially those coming from food stamp users. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, $75 million to $135 million in nutrition assistance benefits were spent on sugary drinks in New York City last year. Many store owners and managers, some of whom are just starting to rebound from the recession, are concerned their sales will drop if the ban goes into effect. Wally Hassen, the manager at Day & Night Deli Grocery in Little Italy, said his store makes about $700 a week from sugary drinks, and most of his customers use food stamps. “It’s going to affect the small businesses,” Hassen said. “They [the government] are not fixing the economy like that.” Spokespeople for the department of health and mental hygiene would not comment on whether a plan is in place to reimburse small businesses for sales lost because of the ban. A statement issued by the American Beverage Association, the trade association representing companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic drinks, criticized the proposal saying it is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink, and will only have an unfair impact on those who can least afford it. Carl Smith, a food stamp user who was recently shopping with his wife at a Key Food Supermarket on Westchester Avenue, said the ban would affect what drinks he buys. “I won’t be able to buy it [soda] because I have no money,” Smith said. “I think it’s stupid. We should be allowed to buy food.” Carl’s wife, Lori, said she buys four cases of soda a month, and Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Sprite are among her favorites. She, too, thinks the ban goes too far. “What’s next? Coffee?” she asked. Although the proposal has many Bronxites fired-up, it is part of a larger citywide effort to fight obesity and Type 2 diabetes, two conditions exacerbated by eating or drinking too much sugar. A 2007 neighborhood report from the Bronx District Public Health Office found that obesity is more common in the Bronx than in New York City overall. The long-term care required to treat these conditions puts stress on the health care system, causing local and national health expenditures to skyrocket. The New York State Department of Health estimates that treatment for obesity-related diseases – like Type 2 diabetes – costs the State more than $7.6 billion every year and the U.S. $150 billion. In 1998, Medicare and Medicaid financed approximately half of the costs of obesity-related diseases in the U.S., according to a study published in the Health Affairs journal by Eric Finkelstein and his colleagues. Obesity-related diseases affect more than just the patients; these diseases also affect current and future generations of taxpayers. “We feel strongly that the government should not be subsidizing or promoting a product that we know makes people sick, especially in the name of nutrition,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, the New York City Health Commissioner. Farley said the proposal targets drinks that are essentially nothing more than sugar water. A 12-ounce serving of water contains no sugar, but original lemon-lime Gatorade has the equivalent of about five packets of table sugar and Coca-Cola Classic has nearly 10. Under the ban, most drinks with more than one packet of sugar would be excluded from allowable food stamp purchases. Sugary drinks contain empty calories, which pump extra energy into a person’s diet without providing nourishment, just like a roommate who takes up space in an apartment but does not help with chores. Most sugary drinks run up calorie intake without giving the body a satisfied appetite in return, causing people to consume even more calories than they would by drinking water alone. These extra calories promote excess weight gain, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough of the hormone insulin – the ticket sugar uses to gain admission into cells – or when the body ignores it. When sugar cannot move into cells, it backs up in the blood, sometimes with insulin, acting like a line of people waiting to get inside a movie theatre. Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage the kidneys, eyes, heart and blood vessels. There is a clear, independent link between sugar consumption and risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to Dr. Frank Hu, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who studies the effect of diet on Type 2 diabetes. “The increase in consumption of sugar has paralleled with the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S.,” Hu said. “Sugar-sweetened beverages have not been on the radar screen for most health professionals until recently. In the past, so much emphasis was put on fat, but now we recognize that sugary drinks are more deleterious.” Hu said the evidence against sugary drinks is now strong enough to start making public health recommendations. But is the best way for a city government to combat obesity and diabetes through restricting soda for the poor? Another solution to tax all soda drinkers crumbled earlier this year after Paterson’s penny-an-ounce tax faced opposition from the New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes. Reducing the size of cans and bottles in vending machines is also an alternative, according to Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It makes intuitive sense that the key is to reduce access,” Kushner said. One of the challenges of reducing access, though, is identifying the many different sources of sugar available to consumers. According to Kushner, sugar is not like cigarette smoke, which comes from a single source. Other experts, and some food stamp users, argue that restricting access alone is not enough because it does not teach people how to adopt healthier behaviors. “There needs to be education to complement the SNAP program,” said Amy Lesh, the clinical nutrition manager at St. Barnabas Hospital. “Nothing is going to work without education.” Food stamp recipient, Richard Cruz, a 34-year resident of Hunts Point, said he understands what the mayor is trying to do, but he does not think Bloomberg is going about it the right way. “If he would have a class on things that make you fat, then may be people would relate to that better,” Cruz said. “I would attend one even though I’m not overweight – it’s for my health.” Bloomberg admitted in early October that banning soda from food stamp purchases is not a perfect solution, but after a failed tax proposal, he said it is another way of going about the problem. Dr. Peter Selwyn, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, said political officials should speak with different stakeholders in the affected population before making policies. “This should inform the decision making,” said Selwyn. “I’m not aware this was part of the process or not.” The proposal is currently in Washington, D.C., where it is undergoing thoughtful and careful review, according to Hans Billger, a public affairs specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture. Some Bronxites said even if the federal agency does approve the proposal, they are not convinced it will actually stop people from buying sugary drinks. “If they don’t buy it with food stamps, they’re going to buy it with cash,” said Ivette Lee, a food stamp user who buys ginger ale at C-Town. “Are they going to stop making cash, too?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Special Reports1 Comment

Edible Garden’s season finale

Celebrity chefs and gardeners teamed up on Oct. 17 for the season finale of the New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Garden exhibit to show visitors how to take their homegrown vegetables from the ground to their dinner plates – just like the pros.
Todd English giving audience members a taste of the beets he used in his risotto. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Todd English giving audience members a taste of the beets he used in his risotto. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Start small, and start easy, said Sonia Uyterhoeven, the gardener for public education at the New York Botanical Garden. “Start with chili peppers, zucchini or tomatoes,” Uyterhoeven said. “Go to people’s gardens and learn what grows well in your neighborhood. Know the needs of the vegetables.” The next step is learning how to cook them. Todd English, the chef and owner of Olives Restaurant in Manhattan, taught audience members how to dress a side of risotto with paper-thin slices of beets, roasted in vinegar and wine. “I call this my little treasure chest,” said English. English used the risotto as a side dish for lamb chops. “He’s a very amazing chef,” said Catherine O’Hara, an educator from Manhattan who had a front-row seat at English’s demonstration. “That was the most original, creative use of beets.” Jennifer Rothman, 36, the associate vice president of children’s and public education at the New York Botanical Garden, coordinated over 200 cooking demonstrations since June, sometimes stepping in and doing demonstrations herself when chefs could not attend. “I love the cooking demos,” Rothman said. “But tomorrow I have off, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Posted in Bronx Blog0 Comments

Take the cannoli — with a heavy dollop of family tradition

Anthony Artuso Sr. may have cannoli and entrepreneurship in his genes. The Belmont native and one-time aspiring aeronautical engineer recalls scrubbing pots and pans at his father’s pastry shop when he was 13 years old. His father, Vincent Sr., bought the pastry shop for approximately $12,000 in 1946 after returning home from World War II.
Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Now Artuso, 63, and two of his children, Anthony Jr. and Concetta, have transformed the shop’s retail and wholesale locations into multi-million-dollar pastry powerhouses. According to Artuso, he sells over nine million cannoli a year, and in 2009, the wholesale location alone made nearly $6 million in sales. His current clients include Whole Foods, Hyatt and the New York Yankees. Artuso and his brother Joseph operate the retail store on the corner of Vincent F. Artuso Sr. Way and Cambreleng Avenue. Assemblyman José Rivera named a section of East 187th Street after Artuso’s father to honor his dedication and success in the pastry business, a legacy the Artuso family strives to continue every day. When Artuso comes to work, he sports polished shoes, slacks with a crease, a cell phone above his right hip and an eye for detail. “That tag on those cookies is falling down,” he said to one of his employees standing behind the glass display case. “See if you can straighten that out.” Artuso may be meticulous, but he remains well-liked and respected by his employees, some of whom have worked for him for many years. “He’s a good business man,” said Amanda Rivera, who works behind the counter at Artuso’s retail store. “He’s always telling us that we have to stay focused on the customers.” Artuso’s interest in customer service is not new. Even as a teenager when he was working for his father, Artuso was interested in recruiting new customers, keeping existing ones and expanding the family business. Artuso never really considered himself a first-class baker. He was always more of a helper, he said, an experience that he believes helped shape the man he is today. “In those days when you worked with old-time Italian bakers, they were very rough especially if you were the boss’s son,” said Artuso of his teenage years at his father’s shop. “They [old-time bakers] used to say go to the hardware store and get a gallon of pigeon milk; tell me to go out and get a bucket of steam. I guess it made a man out of you. If you managed to survive, you became a better person.” Years later, when Artuso became the boss, his children worked for him and also took away many life lessons. “I’ve really learned a great sense of business from my father,” said Artuso’s daughter Concetta, who operates the wholesale location in Mount Vernon with her brother. “My father taught me how to think like a customer and how to be sensitive to their issues.” Artuso did not acquire his clever business sense by accident. When he was growing up, Artuso would spend such long hours working that his mother would make Sunday dinner in the back of the pastry shop. When Artuso was nine years old, he would go to the liquor store located across the street from the shop to buy beer and wine for dinner. The employees at the liquor store would sell him liquor, even though they knew he was underage, because they knew his father. When Artuso returned to the shop, he and his family would sit down to eat macaroni and meatballs with tomato sauce, at the same marble table they used to prepare cakes on previous days. Today, if he had the choice to have one plate of any food in the world, Artuso said it would be his mother’s homemade bolognese gravy with rigatoni. When customers enter Artuso’s pastry shop, they are treated like members of his family. “The Artuso family is not only the finest bakery in the world but the finest family in New York City,” said Thomas Leigh, who stopped into the shop to show Artuso a picture of his son in the newspaper. “There’s no soup kitchen nearby; they come here and the Artusos feed them. We’re talking about the work of Jesus Christ.” Over the years, Artuso has hired hundreds of employees from the local community in his attempt to help residents secure and maintain jobs. He has also donated gift certificates and cakes to charitable organizations and helped put underserved people in contact with landlords. The Belmont community was not always like it is today, he explained. He says it hit rock bottom in the 1990s before a revival. Sales increased and crime in the neighborhood went down. He attributed the revival in part to local attractions like the Bronx Zoo, Fordham University and the New York Botanical Garden. “We’re opening up another retail location and trying to expand the wholesale business,” said Artuso. “If my father knew about all this expansion, he would be smiling right now.”

Posted in Food, Food and Beyond, Southern Bronx4 Comments

The Bronx loves Obama… still

Video by David Patrick Alexander and Elettra Fiumi.

Bronx voters bucked the national trend at the polling booths during Tuesday’s midterm elections, rallying behind President Barack Obama even as they expressed concerns about rising unemployment and the faltering economy. The majority of 300 voters interviewed by Bronx Ink reporters at 29 polling stations Nov. 2 said they voted for the Democrats on the ballot in large part because they wanted to show their support for the president. Many believed that the halfway point was too early to judge his presidency. “I think he’s doing good,” said Maritza Rivera, who voted in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. “There’s too much pressure on him; somebody else would have just passed out already.” An engineer at St. Joseph’s School of Yorkville in Manhattan said he sympathized with the heavy burden born by the nation’s first black president. “He has resolved a little bit of the problems created by Bush,” said Jose Quinonez, as he voted in Belmont. “His hair is white now.” Nationally, the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives and is expected win a number of state gubernatorial races previously held by Democrats. Control of the seats in the U.S. Senate, as of 10 p.m. Tuesday, was still in the balance. In New York State, 13 Congressional seats are being contested. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo beat Republican Tea Party candidate Carl Paladino in a tighter than expected race for governor. But in the Bronx, where nearly 90 percent of the population is non-white, many continued to vote Democratic down the line and hoped the party would keep the momentum it gained in 2008, when 89 percent of borough voters cast ballots for Obama. “I’m concerned about Republicans gaining control over the House,” said Barbara Curran, who voted in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “They’re going to make getting President Obama out of office their mission.” For some supporters, the rising national dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party and the Obama administration added extra incentive to get to a polling booth early in the morning. One Fordham voter said Obama needs confidence from his supporters to implement the changes he promised in the 2008 campaign. “There’s a lot of excess baggage he walked into,” said Perneter McClary. “A lot of times when he tries to get something done, nobody wants to help him. And he can’t do it alone.” But for others, the President still had a long way to go. “I still support him,” said Floyd Sykes of Highbridge, “but not as enthusiastically. Like a lot of people, I wish he’d show some emotion, get mad.” The staggering unemployment rate in Bronx County also prompted many Bronxites to head to the polls. With the latest unemployment figures putting the number of jobless in the borough at 12.5 percent - almost 5 percent higher than Manhattan, according to the State Department of Labor - the economy was an issue for many voters. “I’ve been unemployed for two years,” said Darlene Cruz who voted today in Soundview. “I voted Democrat down the line.” Other issues raised by voters included health care, education, mayoral term limits, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration and gay rights. "I care about maternal health and getting money for schools," said Carmen Mojica outside St. Brendan School in the Norwood section of The Bronx. "I really didn't care about the propositions. I honestly couldn't care less about arguing over term limits. We could be voting for more important things." Beverly Scriven, a Jamaican immigrant who turned up to vote in Soundview just as the polls opened at 6 a.m., said health care was on her mind. "I care about the economy and Medicare. We're seniors, so it affects us more than the youngsters. Regardless of the issues, we'll come out and vote. It's a privilege." On the State level, gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo was popular in the Bronx - even among the Bronx Ink survey’s few staunch Republicans. Williamsbridge resident and Republican Anna Presume said she voted for Cuomo because she liked his stance on crime. “I like Cuomo ... I didn’t vote for him just because he’s good looking,” she laughed. Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, was vilified for his offensive statements about gay people during his campaign, words that may cost him votes. When asked if he had voted for Paladino, East Crotona Park resident Winston Collymore, who does not vote along party lines, replied, “Do you think I am crazy? Do I look crazy?”
Bronx Voters Sound Off: Why I came out to vote? “Right now the city never takes care of us,” said Iqbal Chowdhury, 55, from Norwood. “Robberies are way up. We don’t have enough police support.” “I woke up at 5 a.m., and thought I should make history,” said Chevonne F. Johnson, 43, from East Tremont. “United we stand, divided we fall. That’s why I’m voting today.” “I’m 53 and I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Lisa from Prospect Avenue, who did not want to reveal her last name.  “I got laid off from Department of Homeless Services and now I can’t find a job in this economy.” “I came to vote so I can help keep Republicans from ruining the country,” said William Byne, 56. “Trickle down doesn’t work.” “I always vote,” said Ousmane Bah, 49, from Grand Concourse. “People get killed for the right to vote, you have to come use it.” Do I think Obama is doing a good job? “I think that instead of a bag of gold, he got a bag of dirty laundry,” said Adam King, 36, a Board of Elections coordinator in Castle Hill but lives in Throgs Neck. “We can’t blame Obama for our problems since they came before him. And they’ll probably be here after him.” “It may take more than ten years to fix all this mess,” said Sidney Ellis, 73, from East Tremont. “I want him to take his time and do everything right,” said Natasha Williams, 25, from Tiebout Avenue. “I don’t want him to rush because of what other people said...He’s got eight years to clean up.” “He has no experience. He’s not fit to be president,” said Robert Healy, 49, from Fordham. “A painter doesn’t paint a house unless he’s got experience. I didn’t vote for him before, and I won’t vote for him in 2012.” “I think he’s doing a good job... There’s always going to be crises coming up,” said Luis Padilla, 45. “There’s more eyes on him because he’s the first black president.” What party did I vote for? “I never voted Republican in my life, and I’ve been voting a very long time,” said Kitty Lerin, 63, from Riverdale. “I think the tea party is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing for the Republicans,” said Luis Agostini, 38, from Fordham. “I’m for Cuomo, not Paladino,” said Ziph Hedrington, 43, from Melrose. “Paladino is somebody who I just didn’t trust. He seemed ‘gangsterish’ to me.” “For me, I don’t need to know the candidates,” said Jennifer Clery, 50, from Mott Haven. “I want a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, a Democratic everything.” What do I think about gay rights? “It’s getting a little crazy out there,” said Anthony McDonald, 56, from Grand Concourse. “I do what I have to do.  I’m from the old school.  Whatever you do is your private business, but it shouldn’t be on TV.” “I think gay rights are being used to get more votes,” said Anthony Neal, 50. “I don’t think any politician cares whether a person is gay or not.” “You should allow people to be who they are,” said Chevone F. Johnson, 43, from East Tremont. “It’s not our job to judge each other. That’s God’s job to judge.” “Friends of mine are suffering those problems due to the restrictions and the violence,” said Yvonne Long. “It affects everyone, it affects all of us.” “I don’t care about gays,” said Bertram Ferrer, 69, from Fordham. “I retired from the military and I believe in ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.”
Additional reporting by David Alexander, Elisabeth Anderson, Alexander Besant, Elettra Fiumi, Amara Grautski, Nick Pandolfo, Catherine Pearson, Connie Preti, Irasema Romero, Zach Schonbrun, Yardena Schwartz, Yiting Sun and Caitlin Tremblay.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Election 2010, Politics, Special Reports1 Comment

Street Merchant Stabbed in West Farms

IMG_03055A West Farms street merchant and father of three was stabbed to death on a sidewalk near the Bronx Zoo Wednesday night, leaving the victim’s friends and loved ones wondering why. Jose Laguna-Rosada, 40, was stabbed multiple times in front of 2140 Daly Ave. in the West Farms section of the Bronx. Police responded to the call at 6:47 p.m., and emergency medical services transported Laguna-Rosada to St. Barnabas Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. “Everybody loved Jose,” said Ramon Rodriguez, 48, a neighbor of Laguna-Rosada, who intends to help his family raise money for the funeral. “When I heard the news, my tears came down.” Known for selling DVDs on the street for $5 each, Laguna-Rosada was a beloved figure, often seen by neighbors taking his three sons for ice cream. Danny Aris, 40, a friend who once bought a Titanic DVD from him, said that Laguna-Rosada was not involved in drugs. When he was not selling DVDs, Laguna-Rosada worked for $8 per hour at Ragtime Pizzeria, where he helped clean the restaurant and assemble pizza boxes. “He worked here to make some money on the side,” said Daniel Cruz, 27, a pizza-maker at Ragtime Pizzeria. “He had a decent way of talking. I actually liked him a lot.” Cruz said he would often give Laguna-Rosada free slices of pizza. Laguna-Rosada’s friends and nephews gathered at his apartment this afternoon on Vyse Avenue to support for his wife and children, who were unavailable for comment.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime0 Comments