A bright-yellow poster with a cow on rollerblades did not convince shoppers at the Abreu grocery store to purchase 1% milk. Instead, the gallons of whole milk at the corner store on Sackman and Herkimer in Brownsville had by the afternoon sold out – only to be replaced with more of the red top favorite.
“If you grow up on whole milk and then try something else, it’s not going to taste the same,” said Lydia Soto, a shopper. “I’m used to it.”
Consumers like Soto and others at the Brooklyn bodega have made the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) efforts to fight obesity and diabetes in low-income neighborhoods difficult. The short-term 1% milk initiative by DOHMH, which encouraged bodega owners to carry and distribute information about the low-fat alternative, had been successful said a DOHMH spokesperson. But months later, community residents still preferred whole milk.
“This was a pilot program to gauge community interest,” said Sara Markt, deputy press secretary for DOHMH. “It was not designed to be a magic bullet to solve the health problems for the city.”
Professor Ming-Chin Yeh, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Hunter College, said that handing out information is not going to be effective.
“We did a lot of focus groups about why people do not eat fresh foods and vegetables,” said Yeh, whose research focuses on obesity prevention and management. “We learned that availability is important. And the price.”
DOHMH stands by the results of the three-month pilot program, “Moooove to 1% Milk,” which began in January 2006. The program started with fifteen bodegas in three target neighborhoods: East Harlem, the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn. Bodega owners had to stock 1% milk for three consecutive months. They also agreed to a fifteen percent reduction in the price of 1% milk for at least one month. In return, the bodega owners received $250 dollars at the beginning and $250 dollars at the end of the project to compensate for the discount.
Through taste-tests, milk samples and smoothies, DOHMH promoted 1% milk within the community. After the initial three-months, DOHMH expanded to 183 more bodegas. Those bodegas that wanted to participate received promotional materials like posters, decals and t-shirt. However, these bodegas did not have to offer a discount. In the expansion stage, DOHMH found the program to be successful even without a discount finding that the bodegas ordered and sold more 1% milk.
“I think this is a good direction,” said Yeh. “I think the key is long-term sustainability. They need to find a way to institutionalize the program.”
A 2006 DOHMH report said that Central Brooklyn had more poverty, more obesity, and more diabetes than any other area of New York City. DOHMH planned to expand the 1% milk program to more than 1000 bodegas in 2007. However, at Abreu grocery store regular milk sold out faster and at the Matias grocery store on Eastern Parkway no customers asked for low-fat milk.
“We had it once, but people weren’t buying it,” said Luis, the man behind the counter. “It got kind of sour and we threw it away.”