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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The historic neighborhood of Harlem has been left behind in New York City's war on obesity, but one entrepreneur is trying to reverse the trend -- and fight a stereotype.
The area that gave rise to some of the great achievements in African-American culture and commerce is now inundated with fast-food restaurants and suffers from high rates of obesity and diabetes.
The unhealthy turn has occurred despite the city's ban on artery-clogging trans fats, expansion of bike lanes and launch of attack ads on sugary drinks, which are blamed by some health activists for the country's obesity epidemic.
Into this seemingly fruit- and vegetable-free zone stepped Milo Meed, who earlier this month opened Island Salad, a Caribbean-inspired Harlem eatery that offers customers a made-to-order salad bar.
"Everyone said to me, people (in Harlem), they want fried food, they want soul food, they don't want salad. But living in Harlem and talking to people in the community, I knew what the needs were," Meed said.
He is pushing promotions such as "Diabetes Mondays," which offers a free salad to those who bring along a customer with diabetes.
Island Salad received a loan from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp., a publicly-funded entity that aims to revitalize distressed communities.
Combining tradition with nutrition, the shop offers "jerk chicken salad" along with an "Asian Rasta" salad with grilled teriyaki chicken, crispy chow mein noodles and sesame ginger dressing.
The made-to-order salads can be dressed with a range of 16 mostly house-made dressings, including mango Dijon, cucumber wasabi and pomegranate vinaigrette.
"People who are not familiar with eating a salad think that salad is boring, bland, not tasty," said Meed, adding that his shop is "taking a salad concept and adding flavor to it."
As he spoke, white, black and Hispanic customers, most of them women, entered the restaurant.
"This has been the best thing that has ever happened," said Anna-Marie Edreira, who works nearby. "We haven't had a place where you can get a good, fresh salad tossed for you."
More than half of Harlem residents are overweight or obese, according to a recent report by the city health department.
Experts say a major contributing factor is access to healthier food -- there are fewer supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods.
There are grocery stores at the eastern and western ends of 125th Street, the heart of Harlem, but most of the strip features fast-food and buffet restaurants offering fried chicken and creamy macaroni and cheese.
"I think most low-income people want to eat healthy food when it's available to them," said Ben Thomases, the city's food policy coordinator who described himself as "thrilled" by the arrival of Island Salad.
Island Salad still has its skeptics. "Some people are used to eat the way they do and that won't change," said Richard Rosser, 59, a life-long Harlem resident.