In light of the current health care debate in Congress, many food activists and nutrition specialists are drawing attention to the fact that medical costs are soaring due to obesity-related diseases. Why are Americans getting fatter? Two reasons are (1) unhealthy food is cheap and getting cheaper, and (2) healthy food is hard to find, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

What's the solution? Give poorer neighborhoods access to cheaper, healthier food.

At least, that's the idea. The Bloomberg administration in New York City, which has been at the forefront of nutrition policy since the ban on trans fats, is seeking to make nutritious food more available in northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Jamaica, Queens. Yesterday, the City Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal that will offer zoning and tax incentives to grocery stores in these areas.

But in neighborhoods where unhealthy food shopping habits run deep, do these supermarkets have a chance? Diane Cardwell at the New York Times writes:

There is little consensus outside the administration that the program would significantly change eating habits, especially in a grim economy [...] Indeed, the city's earlier efforts to make fresh foods more readily available in poor neighborhoods have yielded mixed results.

Efforts to encourage the city's bodegas to stock low-fat milk and fresh produce have been less successful than originally hoped, with health department officials now focusing their efforts on 60 stores every six months, rather than roughly 1,000 they started with in 2006.

Cardwell cites evidence that there is a demand for these new supermarkets, such as the use of food stamps at farmers markets, the success of a Pathmark in East Harlem, and the general success of a similar program started in Pennsylvania four years ago.

As a proponent of nutrition, I find it hard to criticize New York's ambition. But I worry that the plan will shoot for the moon and miss the mark entirely. The current plan provides zoning exceptions that allow for the construction of larger buildings in these neighborhoods. Why not first give tax incentives to existing Duane Reade and CVS pharmacies (already a daily destination for millions of city shoppers) to carry fresh produce? Perhaps this, in combination with public nutrition education programs, will create a more concrete demand for large grocery stores in these neighborhoods.