How COVID Accelerated a Fight Against Food Deserts

Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Anna Rodríguez woke up one morning in December 2019, she saw a black cloud over her right eye. Until then, the 54-year-old had ignored a diagnosis of prediabetes that she’d received a decade earlier; she had not taken medicine on a regular basis, she had not exercised, and she had not paid attention to her doctor’s warning about the importance of healthy food. But that morning, Rodríguez began experiencing one of the first symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes and one of the leading causes of blindness.

Rodríguez’s diet was heavy on fast food, easy to grab after her job as a technical designer at a clothing cooperative. “I was tired after 13 hours of work,” she says. “It was the easiest and fastest thing there was. I ate to go to bed.” She recalls the distressing words of the retina expert who examined her: “You are dripping blood from the retina. This must be your diabetes. If you don’t change your food habits you are going to go blind.”

Certainly, diabetes was not unexpected among the women in her Dominican family; all of her aunts had it. “But none of them was losing an eye to the disease,” she says.

Rodríguez heard about a talk that a physician named Diego Ponieman gave in East Harlem. Ponieman — an Argentinian physician who was part of SOMOS Community Care, a network of local Latino primary physicians — treated Medicaid patients like her. Ponieman was well known among Latinos diagnosed with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. He offered something rare: attention in Spanish, 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. “And I wanted to learn to eat well,” says Rodríguez.

Ponieman explains 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. In fact, 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.”

That fight can be not only about battling harsh economic circumstances, but also about breaking long-held approaches to eating, which were sometimes learned while growing up. Rodríguez says that she remembers her mother, Marina, loving to cook — though without factoring in the food’s potential nutritional value. “In my house there were no vegetables,” Rodríguez says, “although there was a lot of rice, a lot of potatoes.” Marina, who raised Rodríguez as a single mother, emigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Like many Dominicans who have arrived in New York City without knowing the language, she went through periods of great scarcity and economic difficulty. Today, Rodríguez realizes that these experiences could perhaps explain her mother’s tendency to overfeed her: “My mother forced me to eat: ‘Eat, eat, eat!’ In her own childhood, she was so hungry that she didn’t want me to go ever through the same thing.”

While SOMOS handles medical interventions, a group called Plant Powered Metro New York works to actually help people eat better. Lianna Levine Reisner, the founder of PPMNY, says 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.”

In the past year, Latina volunteers have taken an increasingly active role in the group. Aifra Ruiz, a Dominican from Harlem; and Marta Gomez-Bolaños, a Salvadoran from the Bronx, organize Zoom talks every Thursday at 7 p.m. Attendees 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.

During one session, Lilian Correa, a registered dietitian from Peru, says she began to study nutrition after her grandfather developed diabetes upon his arrival in the United States. “As many of us may have noticed, we begin to adopt a diet that is not our usual one,” she said in her talk. “Many of us gain weight — it happened to me too and, I imagine, to many of you.” She says that she never wants to talk down to her patients, and that her aim is to get people excited about seeking out fresh ingredients. “It’s not like, ‘I’m going to take anything away from you,’” she explains. “It’s that I’m going to add more vegetables — the palate is going to get used to it, your body is going to adapt.”

María José Hummel, a Chilean nutritionist who participated in a Zoom presentation for the organization a few months ago, says she wants to help people reduce their reliance on processed foods in order to rediscover the healthier staples of traditional diets —whole grains, legumes — and to integrate the kinds of dishes once enjoyed by her grandparents and other Latinos of their generation.

“It is not the virus that does the damage,” Ponieman says. “It is the body’s response to the virus. It’s inflammation and [immune system] that responds so wildly.” Even with the arrival of the vaccine, there is no time to waste. “These diseases are here to stay,” he continues. “It is time to work so that the next outbreak finds this population more prepared.”

Rodríguez, for one, is grateful. In recent months, she has tried to continue healthy eating routines, and has followed the talks and online events. “You also learn by listening to one another, asking questions,” she says. When she met with family members for the first time after several months of quarantine, they were shocked to see that she had lost more than 50 pounds. Her family asked her about her vision. “My eyes,” Rodríguez answered, “are seeing clearer again.”

Muriel Alarcón Luco is a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow.

How COVID Accelerated a Fight Against Food Deserts