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Health experts: Brooklyn seniors are starving for healthy food

Market value: Lisa Boyd helps run the Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation’s innovative market-style food pantry, which lets folks with food stamps pick out fresh produce.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

A whopping 77 percent of old folks in Brooklyn cannot afford the healthy food they need — and the famine is creating a crisis of chronic health conditions in the borough’s wizened residents.

That was the headline figure from a forum about the growing disaster at a Bedford-Stuyvesant community center on Feb. 23, where health gurus, local leaders, and seniors gathered to discuss solutions to the catastrophe — a problem that is particularly dire in the host neighborhood, according to one expert.

“Bed-Stuy has some of the highest rates of chronic conditions in the state and in the country,” said Maria Alvarez of the Brooklyn-wide Interagency Council of the Aging, who sat on the symposium hosted by Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and advocacy group Ageing in New York Fund. “We know people who do not eat properly have higher incidences of chronic disease.”

Deaths from diabetes in the area are more than twice the citywide rates, while the ’hood ranks eighth-highest in stroke hospitalizations, according to a study from the city’s Department of Health — both conditions linked to poor nutrition.

Fortunately, the problem is at least partially preventable, the experts said — many low-income seniors are going without the food that could keep them healthy despite there being government programs in place to help them out, both because they don’t know about them and the stigma attached to the programs.

“They might think it’s embarrassing,” said Alvarez. “Sometimes it can be a denigrating experience for the person.”

The pro-aged activists are now working to break down the shameful associations — one group has gussied up its Bedford-Stuyvesant food pantry to resemble a regular grocery store so folks feel proud to browse their aisles.

“Sometimes there is a stigma attached to going to a food pantry, so we converted ours to a supermarket-style client-choice model,” said Lisa Boyd of the Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation, which operates the fancy pantry out of its Throop Avenue center. “It’s a dignified way for them to shop.”

The center also hosts cooking classes for seniors to further promote healthy eating.

And the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation — both a long-standing community group and a local neighborhood hub — is also providing resources for low-income seniors unsure of how to take advantage of food programs. The center helps old-timers sign up for food stamps and screens them for other government benefits, said the panel’s host, who was thrilled to see a flood of local seniors show up at the rainy day of the panel to learn more.

“It was amazing on a cold and dreary afternoon the number of people who came out,” said Tracey Capers. “So many people came out in full force.”

Reach reporter Allegra Hobbs at ahobbs@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8312.
Helping hand: Activist Maria Alvarez of the Brooklyn-wide Interagency Council of the Aging wants to make sure seniors in Bedford-Stuyvesant and across the borough have access to healthy food.
Photo by Louise Wateridge

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