A water fountain at Hostos Community College. Photo by Christina Danny.
A filtered water station at Hostos Community College. Photo: Christina Dabney.

For years, Lisa Spencer would drink 3 bottles of Arizona Iced Tea every day. It was a habit to which her body slowly became addicted. But before Valentine’s day this year, she decided to quit. She began participating in the Healthy Beverage Zone Challenge, swapping sweet tea and soda for water. Now more than 20 pounds lighter, her migraines are gone and at 51, she’s still losing inches.

“It all started with my big blue water bottle. Even when I go out to eat. I say, ‘I’ll take a water please. Maybe a little lemon,’” said Spencer, a nurse at Union Community Health Center, which operates four multi-service clinics around the Bronx. “And it sparks a conversation. My daughter posts about me on Facebook, my family has been very encouraging. And I really love encouraging others.”

A 2014 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked the Bronx as the unhealthiest of New York State’s 62 counties, prompting the borough president’s office to respond with its own #Not62 Campaign for a Health Bronx. Twenty-nine percent of adults in the borough struggle with obesity, five percent above the state average.

In September the Bronx became one of 50 finalists in the Healthiest Cities Challenge and received a grant of $10,000 to initiate the Bronx Healthy Beverage Zone, a creation of one of that program’s creators, Dr. Vanessa Salcedo. It’s aimed at eliminating sugary beverages from sites and businesses around the community, and educating residents about what sugar does to the body. Hostos Community College, Bronx Health REACH, the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center, and many others have joined the program. After self-assessment they could win up to $500,000 to put towards other programs.

“This program will be successful because we’re working as a partnership, effectively. We’re stronger that way than apart,” said Fabian Wander, director of the Health and Wellness Center at Hostos.

They’re pushing the Healthy Beverage Zone by installing filtered water stations, getting rid of sweet drinks in vending machines, and by creating social media campaigns and other guerrilla marketing techniques.

“Something that really stuck with us was when a young woman in the focus group responded, ‘I don’t have to worry about this because I only drink clear sodas’. We came in with all these preconceived notions when it turns out we do have to say things like ‘Hey, Gatorade is not good for you,’” said Luz Correa, a representative for Union Community Health Center.

Kelly Moltzen, a registered dietitian who works for Bronx Health REACH, said that there are a lot of misconceptions about strongly marketed, easily accessible sugary drinks.

“When the equivalent amount of sugar that is in these beverages is measured out in teaspoons, it is often quite shocking to people to realize how much sugar they are ingesting,” said Moltzen.

But the lifestyle changes go beyond the program, said Spencer. She said she is becoming more aware of what she is drinking, without eliminating sugar completely.

“Hot chocolate is my favorite,” Spencer said. “I keep telling myself, when I lose 20 more pounds I’m going to have a hot chocolate. And it’s going to be a really good hot chocolate.”

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