The Inequality of Living in a Food Desert During COVID-19

The Lempert Report
February 17, 2021

New York City’s Latino community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due in part to social inequality

There is a man, a physician named Diego Ponieman in East Harlem in New York City – he is an Argentinian physician who was part of SOMOS Community Care, a network of local Latino primary physicians. Diego was well known among Latinos diagnosed with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. He offered something rare that we need to pay attention and learn from: he communicated to his patients on their terms - in Spanish, with cultural competence, and treatment with an emphasis on prevention rather than disease intervention. He promoted a lifestyle based on less processed food and more plant-based nutrition.  

Ponieman explained to Grub Street that Rodríguez’s circumstances are not unique, and that the struggle to combat the effects of food deserts — neighborhoods in which residents have a difficult time finding healthy and affordable food, including vegetables and fruit — is ongoing. He also says that the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. New York City’s Latino community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due in part to social inequality: Almost half live in poverty and suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and low immunity — preexisting conditions that are likely the result of chronic poor nutrition. Ponieman has seen the urgency to combat the virus creating more interest in better diets, too. “People are afraid … terrified,” he says. “It is an opportunity for transformation. Never before has there been so much momentum — but it’s fighting a monster,” he told Grub Street.

Lianna Levine Reisner, the founder of Plant Powered Metro New York, also told rub Street that in recent months the group has focused its efforts on the Latino community, precisely due to the dire number of individuals affected by the pandemic. “We want them to know that there is more that they can do than just washing their hands or wearing a mask or staying away from people,” she explains. “They can also eat differently to change how their bodies are able to meet and greet a new virus.” They conduct a Zoom talk every Thursday at 7pm where participants can watch recipe workshops and food demos, with information about the health benefits of plant-based and whole foods, all led in Spanish by local doctors, nurses, dietitians, and chefs. There are supermarkets, and their retail dietitians, throughout the country and Puerto Rico that “get it” – H-E-B, Northgate, and Healthy Path Markets to name just a few – who understand that communicating especially about nutrition has to be done in a way that fits the culture of their shoppers. We should all learn from that!