On the heels of “vegan Fridays,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams says his administration will be expanding a chronic disease management program that focuses on diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors rather than medication.
The Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program, piloted at Bellevue starting in 2019, will open up clinics in five new Health and Hospitals locations across the city this year, officials announced during a press conference, prior to a mayoral vegan chili cooking demonstration on Monday.
In addition to the original Bellevue location, patients will be able to enroll at Health and Hospitals Jacobi and Lincoln in the Bronx, the Brooklyn sites of Woodhull and Kings County, Elmhurst in Queens and Gotham Health Vanderbilt in Staten Island.
More than 850 New York City residents have referred themselves for the Bellevue pilot program, according to the mayor’s office. The pilot had a $400,000 price tag, and Adams said the Office of Management and Budget is “still figuring out” the cost of the expanded plan.
“New York is going to change the conversation about using food not to feed healthcare crises, but to stop the crises,” Adams said, adding that he credits his diet, described as a “plant based-centered life,” for his management of his type II diabetes.
The program is open to adult Health and Hospitals patients living with type II diabetes, pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and health problems linked to obesity, city officials said. Patients meet with a doctor, a dietitian and a health coach, who guide them toward a plant-based diet and a regular exercise regime, as well as help them stop smoking. Participants can also take group classes on sleep habits, stress management, grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking.
Studies suggest that a diet low in animal foods and rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds can slash the risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases. In 2017, about 12% of New Yorkers reported they were diabetic, according to city data. Black and brown New Yorkers are more likely than their white peers to be diabetic, and diabetes rates are highest in low-income neighborhoods. Black New Yorkers are also more likely than any other group to die prematurely of heart disease.
New Yorkers in these groups are also more likely to have difficulty accessing nutritious food. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, more Black than white New Yorkers reported that they didn’t have enough money for groceries. In high-poverty neighborhoods, there are 18 bodegas for every supermarket, according to city data. In wealthier neighborhoods, that ratio is just 7 to 1.
“Many communities face significant barriers to being able to adopt beneficial lifestyle habits, including limited access to healthy foods, inadequate housing and unsafe environments,” said Dr. Michelle McMacken, executive director of the nutrition and lifestyle medicine program at NYC Health + Hospitals. McMacken said the newly expanded program would coordinate with the hospital network’s social services team and city initiatives aimed at reducing health disparities, but didn’t give more details.
Asked what he would do to make healthy food more accessible to low-income New Yorkers, Adams replied that healthy food being expensive is “a myth” and listed some recipes that could be made with a $2 bag of lentils. He then added that SNAP recipients can use city-provided coupons called “Health Bucks” to purchase produce at greenmarkets around the city.
“I want people to say, ‘What could I eat in my bodega right now?’” Adams said. “These black-eyed peas are right in your local bodega. The carrots in your local bodega. The bananas, the apples in your local bodega. The berries in your local bodega.”
But Adams acknowledged that the food produce he described isn’t available to all New Yorkers.
“We have segregated healthy foods from the communities that are the hardest hit with the issues that we’re facing,” he said. “Healthy food is where The New York Times is on the stand. Unhealthy food is where all the other tabloids are on the stand.”