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Uptown Chronicle : October 27, 2011

Uptown Chronicle


Weighty Issues

Posted on 27 October 2011. 

Fighting Obesity in Highbridge


By: Suhrith Parthasarathy

Kennedy Fried Chicken is only a small shop at the corner of Ogden Avenue and West 165th Street in Highbridge in the Bronx. But everyday, students from the nearby Public Schools 73 and 126 – both elementary schools – flock there, after school, for a cheap burger, chicken nuggets, or pizza with fries and a sugary soda.

“There are few options for healthy eating in Highbridge,” said Juan Ramon Rios. “The [area] west of Yankee Stadium is neglected. It is isolated from the rest of the Bronx. It is a ‘Produce Desert,’ and vegetables and fruits aren’t available freely. People, therefore, choose the cheap and unhealthy option.”


Rios, 43, tall, broad-shouldered and bespectacled, was dressed in a white shirt with a green tie, and dark pinstriped trousers and was sitting in his blue-walled office at the basement of Highbridge Community Life Center’s headquarters on Ogden Avenue. He is the Project Coordinator of the center’s health program, which aims at raising awareness about public health issues. “Children eat what is advertised,” Rios said, “if you walk around the neighborhood, you will see bodegas and delis that advertise cigarettes, alcohol, whole milk, candy and sodas. We are dealing with economic forces that promote unhealthy food.”

Obesity among the children of Highbridge is an epidemic of startling proportions. Research conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that one in four children in the South Bronx are obese. Obesity is defined in relation to Body Mass Index (BMI) – which is a way of measuring human body fat based on an individual’s height and weight. According to the website of the World Health Organization, BMI is calculated by dividing a person’s weight (in kilograms) by the square of his or her height (in meters). “A person with a BMI of 30 or more is generally considered obese. A person with a BMI equal to or more than 25 is considered overweight.” In Public School 73 – located on Anderson Avenue – according to data released by Highbridge Community Life Center, nearly 53 percent of the fifth graders were found to be overweight.  With type-two diabetes, heart disease and hypertension directly linked to obesity, the problem is critical.

“It is a multi-faceted issue,” said Sigrid Aarons, who works with Bronx Health Reach, a coalition of organizations that works to reduce disparities in health services in the Bronx. She added, “The schools aren’t the problem. Most unhealthy eating takes place in bodegas and fast food restaurants near the schools. Parents are working long hours and children left to themselves eat empty calorie foods high in sugar, fat and salt.” Aarons was speaking, along with Diana Johnson and Kelly Moltzen, her colleagues at the organization, in her office on the 6th floor of the Institute of Family Health’s building on East 12th street in Manhattan.

“Compared to other boroughs, the South Bronx has a lot more fast food restaurants and bodegas,” said Johnson, “There is a large disparity there. Even if the kids want to eat healthy, the options are limited and the produce isn’t as fresh as it could be. They are inundated with messages of fast food marketing. It’s not easy for kids to choose water when they can get a large sweet iced tea for 99 cents.”

Rios, who is coordinating a joint program between Highbridge Community Life Center and Public School 73 to promote healthy eating habits in the school, said the problem has many layers: “There are very few supermarkets in the neighborhood and even those prove too expensive for the community.” Some children, he added, are not only obese but are also malnourished: “They are eating too much fried food. The Kennedy Fried Chicken up the block is always packed.”

Raysa Rosada, 39, is the mother of a first grade child in Public School 73. She believes parents must take some of the blame for the proliferation of obesity in Highbridge. “If I don’t eat right, how is my child going to eat right?” she asked. “The bodegas and the Kennedy Fried Chicken are filled not only with kids, but with parents too.”

Marquiz Brown, 29, the father of a third grader in the school, though, disagreed. He said, “At this age children should be allowed to eat what they want to. Of course they shouldn’t be eating a lot of junk. But they are young right now. Some chips, and some candy won’t hurt.” Michael Lynch, whose son also goes to the school, said, “My son is overweight himself. I try to put him in football to enhance his energy and lose some weight. But there aren’t a lot of healthy options here, not a lot of vegetable and fruit stalls around. If there is a McDonalds near Yankee Stadium, a Burger King or a pizza place around the corner, kids are going to want to eat there.”

Eating habits, though, are only one element in a complex cultural discussion. Most children in the South Bronx exercise sparsely. “In the schools, we’ve learned that most students get only 45 to 90 minutes of physical education per week,” said Aarons, “The state mandates that each student must get 120 minutes every week. But many of these schools don’t have the resources to provide it.” The Bronx, added Rios, has more acreage of park space than any other borough in New York City, but very few children use it. He said, “In Highbridge we have the John Mullaly Park, which has a big field, for instance. But parents are concerned to let their children play outside without supervision. There is the fear of crime, drugs, gangs.”

Wenzell Jackson, the chairman of Community Board 4, which serves Highbridge, said he is deeply concerned about the rise of childhood obesity rates. He said in addition to the dearth of quality grocery stores, lack of sufficient physical education plays a huge part. Jackson, 45, who was attending an event at Public School 73, was dressed in a blue, pinstriped, three-piece suit. “Video games are also to blame for the problem. When I was a kid, we used to go out and play football or baseball. These days, children spend too much time in front of a computer. We just aren’t fostering an environment that is indicative of the lifestyle that people want to live,” he added.

The winter adds an additional dimension to the problem. Rios explained, “When it’s cold outside, children can’t go out to play. Schools need to open up the gyms to ensure that the kids get enough exercise.” Through Highbridge Community Life Center’s joint program with Public School 73, Rios has been able to impart some values to both children and their parents on the importance of healthy eating and exercise. Some of the work is certainly beginning to pay off.

James Escolastico and Alex Perez, fourth graders at the school, were buying pizza from the Kennedy Fried Chicken. But they were conscious of the need to eat healthy. Escolastico said, “I eat pizzas three days a week, maybe. But I don’t eat much chips or drink soda, because I know that can damage me. I eat vegetables that my mom cooks.”

Highbridge Community Life Center: 979 Ogden Ave, Bronx, NY 10452  Phone: (718) 681-2222
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