Saturday, December 30, 2006

Obesity Kids

There was a story in Friday's Boston Globe that highlighted the severity of the obesity epidemic for urban kids. The story, based on a research study that is published in the current American Journal of Public Health, describes the fact that, of the 2,000 families studied, over 1/3 of the kids under three years of age were obese!

In Boston, in reaction to the findings, the city's health officials announced that a $279,000 grant was being given "to community groups committed to joining the war on obesity, taking the fight directly to the city's streets..." Boston apparently believes that the obesity epidemic needs to be tackled by going after the hearts and minds side of the equation that we have been stressing in some of our critical comments about the NYC DOH's initiatives in this area.

The problem that health officials face is related to both diet and the lack of physical exercise. The question that we face is how to we get this population, most of whom are on some form of government food assistance, to change their lifestyle? In New York, however, the emphasis has been on restructuring the way that restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets do business. Little has been done to address the nutrition/public education component. This is precisely why the Health Corps initiative that we have been championing is so crucial.

In the Globe story the issue of the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is once again raised: "Low income parents often tell Boston Medical Center doctors that fresh fruits and vegetables either aren't accessible in the inner city or cost too much." Some kind of empirical testing of this needs to be done, testing that will determine whether the problem lies with availability or rather with the lack of awareness and demand for these healthier alternatives from the target population (or perhaps somewhere in between).

Once a better understanding is achieved, then perhaps we can devise some pilot programs to see if we can get a greater demand for these food items. As one health advocate told the Globe, "'s not only saying what women should be doing but also showing how to problem solve, how to access these nutritious foods, and helping them make choices about what is healthy eating and how to read a label." Certainly, simply posting calorie counts on a fast food menu is an inadequate and inequitable public policy measure.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Club Confusion: Underage Complicity Lies...Where?

The nightlife report issued by the City Council is remarkably evenhanded considering the hysteria that led the body into its investigation of club safety. There are, however,certain basic weaknesses in the council's understanding of some of the underlying problems of the city's night life. The primary misconception revolves around the entire concept of underage drinking.

We can see how this is played out in today's NY Post story of the council's nightlife report (and let's say right here that the Post's Stephanie Gaskell has been terrific at pursuing this issue in an evenhanded manner). As the paper reports the council righteously goes after the purveyors and users of fake IDs. At the same time Speaker Quinn lashes out against "club promoters." As she says, "Promoters often contribute to disruptive incidents and to the problem of underage drinking."

In response to this Quinn is looking to license promoters, something that the industry sees as totally unworkable. AS NYNA head David Rabin points out, "There are too many and they rise and fall week by week." The urge to regulate, it is felt, will create an additional regulatory burden that will "water down" the city's vibrant nightlife.

The problem here, as the Post pointed out in its story on promoters last summer, is that they are meeting an "unmet need." There are tens of thousands of 18-20 year olds who want to drink and regard the age limit as a crock. When the majority of a certain population has no respect for the law a huge problem is created that can't be solved by any regulatory crackdown on businesses (in this kind of a situation the police also often find themselves in a hopeless situation).

If the council is unwilling to severely punish underage violators than the net result of its regulatory efforts will be to dilute the vibrancy and economic viability of the city's clubs, leaving untouched the underlying under aged drinking epidemic. Yet too often, especially in NYC, the government answer to any problem is another onerous regulation.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

City Council Boogies on Fake IDs

In a report released yesterday on the city's nightlife industry, the City Council came up with a number of important initiatives that reflect a balance between the Council's concerns for greater patron safety, and the industry's concerns about its economic viability. As the NY Post reports, in a front page story this morning, the council is pushing for a crackdown con the sale and use of phony IDs-something that the clubs have been stressing as a key enforcement tool needed to address the problem of underage drinking.

In addition, as the NY Sun reports, the Council is also proposing the creation of an "Office of Nightlife Affairs," that will coordinate between the clubs and a not always friendly NYPD. In this, as in a number of the other proposals, the council is recognizing the significance of the $10 billion nightlife industry to the city's economy. The proposals also reflect the successful lobbying and public relations campaign that was launched in the middle of an anti-club media blitz after a couple of unfortunate incidents last summer.

One proposal that wasn't adopted, the so-called paid detail initiative that would allow clubs to hire off-duty cops to patrol outside their places, was apparently nixed because of the opposition of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. It is hoped that the new Nightlife Office will help to induce the department to treat the industry with a greater degree of respect that reflects its economic contribution to New York.

As a whole, the council's recommendations indicate a degree of legislative seriousness that we have criticized the body for lacking on the public health front. Perhaps this will be a harbinger of a more proactive response in this area as well in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

One City, One Double Standard

We were a little bemused by the news that the city's Conflict of Interest Board had "scolded" staffer supreme Mike Nieves for his supposed indiscretion in "representing" a landlord. . Leaving aside the actual facts in the case-that the landlord in question was a sixty-seven year old Hispanic woman who was being hassled by her tenant-it is a manifestation of extreme hypocrisy for this useless agency to say anything about Nieves.

Let's not forget that it was this same board that ruled in 2002 that there was no conflict at all between Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and developer Steve Ross even though the two men had been business partners before DD came into office. The board, in making this asinine ruling, alleged that no conflict existed because the Ross-Doctoroff relationship predated Dan's entry into government. In doing so, it manged to overlook the fact that the relationship was continuous and ongoing with Ross's pivotal role in the 2012 Olympic bid.

In the ensuing four years Related has done very well indeed and there is clear evidence of its favored nation status in the awarding of any number of lucrative city contracts. The NY Times' Charles Bagli exposed a good deal of this in his 2005 article on the Ross/Doctoroff friendship. So it seems to us that the COIB should have the decency to keep silent on anything but the most egregious violations in the realm of interest conflicts. After all, giving Doctoroff a pass entitles all but convicted felons the same privilege.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fat Lost in Trans-lation

In today's Wall Street Journal Holman Jenkins makes an interesting observation about the upcoming New York City ban on the use of trans fat in restaurants. After remarking on the tendency of the Bloomgergistas to turn the Jeffersoninian maxim about "governing least" on its head, Jenkins points out the connection between the ban and the "slow chattelization of the beneficiary class."

An interesting observation indeed, since one out of every three city residents is a Medicaid recipient, and the city will "shell out $6.6 billion as its share of Medicaid, plus another $3.8 billion on health care for current and retired workers..." Quite clearly, the trans fat ban is aimed directly at the poor who apparently don't know any better. And since fats food restaurants are disproportionately located in low income neighborhoods, the demand for caloric information on menus is also linked directly to Dr. Frieden's crusade to make the poor live healthier lives.

Undoubtably the bodega initiative, which will help the city's small groceries to sell more fresh fruit and vegetables, is part of this same mindset. Here the Department will incentivize the stores to carry more produce, and do outreach in poorer neighborhoods to educate the folks about the benefits of eating healthier foods.

When we examine the Department of Health's neighborhood-by-neighborhood health report the statistics bear out this observation: middle class and affluent communities are not experiencing the obesity epidemic and the concomitant health problems in anywhere near the same degree as the poorer areas of the city do.

The trans fat ban's apparent equal protection quality, because it applies to high-end and low-end restaurants alike, only masks the fact that the fancy eateries are already loading up their delicacies with saturated animal fat (Which, if true, has had little impact on the health of the affluent, who understand all of the other more important variables that go in to making one unhealthy).

Which brings us to the trend that is being established by the city health police; because when the dust has settled and trans fat is history it is more than likely that, "New York's ban will likely have a microscopic ban on the health of New Yorkers, or perhaps none at all. Massive caloric consumption is the real source of America's rising obesity ills, combined with a lack of exercise." When this minuscule impact is established the health police will inevitably escalate their crusade.

Therefore, the next step, "as government expands its fiscal responsibility for our health care," has to be caloric regulation. Which makes it even more incumbent on the New York City Council to involve itself on these issues and legislate. The ideology of the public health caloristas needs to be fully understood and evaluated so that the city isn't forced to comply with regulations that will further restrict our independent scope of action in the name of saving us from ourselves.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

DEPleted Intelligence

The DEP strikes again. As today's NY Post reports one Bronx widow "is getting the royal flush" from "bumbling city bureaucrats"who have soaked her with A $22,000 bill, an amount she supposedly rang up in only 18 months of service.

What this outrage continues to demonstrate is that this particular city agency lacks any basic fiscal wherewithal. It raises questions about whether the city should put the entire organization into some form of municipal receivership. Certainly with over 21,000 customers more than two years behind in their bills, and with the agency unable to defend its charges, something needs to be done. As the widow Vitto says, "It's just a nightmare...All I want is a fair shake."

Which is precisely what the city's restaurants, green grocers and supermarkets have been saying for the past three years as their efforts to get permission to install commercial food waste disposers has met with resistance from DEP bureaucrats. According to the agency the installation of some 20,000 disposers would force the DEP into retrofitting the waste water infrastructure-at a cost that they estimate to be around $2 billion!

Can we get a second opinion here? Are we to take this estimate at face value? What are we to make of the DEP commissioner's statements that her experts can better evaluate the costs of such a program than an actual real world pilot study? It's time for the city council to intervene and get Intro 133 in place so that the evidence of its environmental and economic efficacy can be demonstrated.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Atlantic Yards: An Extraordinary Team Effort

In today's NY Daily News Errol Louis comments on the unique, broad-based coalition that was put together by FCRC in support of the Atlantic Yards development. While praising the effort, Louis also takes a shot at the Municipal Arts Society head, Kent Barwick, who chided the lack of community support for the project: ""Like many other homeowners and longtime residents of the area, I find that attitude insulting."

The reality is that over 200 block associations and other civic organizations enlisted in support of Atlantic Yards. This does not include the over 100 sports groups that also signed up on the side of the development as members of the Brooklyn Sports Alliance (or, of course, Acorn and Build that were the focal point of so much of the media scrutiny).

The facts here is that the political maestro Bruce Bender and his able sidekick Scott Cantone out-organized and out-thought all of the opposition. Yes FCRC had the resources; but the resources alone wouldn't have won this battle if they hadn't been deployed with such skill. At the end of the day, the victory here was achieved because all of these skills and resources were employed in the service of a project that will generate a tremendous amount of good for Brooklyn and the city as a whole, long after Daniel Goldstein is a small footnote in the city's history.

And for all of the critics of Richard Lipsky who chastised him for selling out, we have only one perpetual question: What have you ever done to prevent any development that might have posed a danger to a neighborhood or the small businesses in it? All these armchair quarterbacks who've never gotten their hands dirty should simply shut up; or better yet, join with the Alliance in its upcoming fight against the Wal-Mart that wants to come into downtown Brooklyn. Then, perhaps, they'll experience the thrill of victory rather than the agony of defeat.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Net Gain

As we had predicted all along, as the final approval for Atlantic Yards and the Brooklyn Nets was sealed yesterday, the DDD folk song army went down singing. The opposition simply didn't have the resources to challenge the impressive grass roots and conventional political campaign unleashed by Forest City in its efforts to build the $4 billion complex.

In the face of this reality it is quite comical to read the comments of the Municipal Arts Society's Kent Barwick who told the Times, "From the beginning, the project has been a public-private partnership in which the public has not been represented." This statement is reminiscent of Louis XIV's comment-"L'Etat C'est Moi." The level of public involvement was indisputably immense, particularly in comparison with the level of support that many other large developments have had in this city.

For now, the opponents of the plan, aside from looking for new digs, need to put their faith in an eminent domain challenge that is a definite long shot. In spite of all of the huffing and puffing it appears to us that the Kelo decision makes this kind of challenge even more problematic. Which means that in all likelihood the Brooklyn Nets will begin play in the borough in the 2009-2010 season.

This gives the franchise three years to begin to further develop a fan base, something that the Brooklyn Sports Alliance has been working on for the past two years. FCRC needs to now incorporate its sports allies so that the support for the team will be as strong as possible. If it does than the Knicks will be in for one spirited rivalry that will be good for the entire city.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nets Endgame at Hand

Today is the day that the Atlantic Yards project should be decided by the Public Authorities Control Board. And, if the NY Post story today is correct, it looks as if the final hurdle for approval of the arena has been overcome. Of course, it goes without saying that the opponents of the plan will challenge any approval in court, although the fate of any eminent domain lawsuit is quite problematic in New York State.

If all goes according to the published reports then Atlantic Yards will become a reality and the Nets will become Brooklyn's first pro franchise since the Dodgers abandoned the borough over fifty years ago. If this happens then a great deal of credit needs to go to FCRC's Bruce Bender who has masterminded a political strategy that will have (hopefully) overcome an intense oppositional campaign that was well organized and, on the whole, well thought out as well.

Forest City-and credit to Jim Stuckey for his spearheading of the development effort-created a grass roots support effort that this city has never seen. It enticed the support of Acorn, mobilized local groups under the BUILD banner and, through the efforts of Richard Lipsky, FCRC's Tom Tuffey and Jeff Rothburg, created a grass roots sports support team that gave further legitimacy to the project.

On top of all this Forest City negotiated a community benefits agreement that, while it didn't escape some criticism, paved the way for further development of this concept of community participation. As much as the grass roots was essential here, it would be remiss not to mention how skillfully Bender and his team curried political support at all levels. If, as we hope, the green light is given today, than the Bender team's game plan will be studied and emulated for years to come.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty Pimples

Our we the only ones who are more than slightly underwhelmed by the mayor's new $100 million anti-poverty initiative? No, we haven't done a line by line analysis but the published reports seem to us to be the same old same old; although the program to "teach the poor about financial management" that will operate (of all places) out of the city's Department of Consumer Affairs does have the capacity for high comedy.

Now there may be some more that we just haven't been informed of quite yet, since there will be an additional 30 programs that "administration officials say they are developing but declined to announce." All of which does little to overcome our endemic skepticism of the government's ability to guide folks out of poverty circumstances-without the inevitable bureaucratization that seems to always become self-perpetuating.

The Bloomberg initiative may turn out to be different but there is nothing that we have seen from these folks that would indicate a capacity to see anything through an entrepreneurial lens and not a paternalistic, "we know what's best for these people" world view. We're waiting breathlessly to see whether there is a job-creation component of the plan that recognizes the need to spur small business in those neighborhoods where high chronic unemployment exists.

Spurring economic growth through an aggressive policy of reducing regulations and high taxes is not a mind set we have come to expect from this administration; in spite of the fact that the neighborhood retail sector is probably the biggest employer of minority workers in the city. In our view, city anti-poverty efforts should be in collaboration, not so much with the sufferers themselves (although they have to be involved as a matter of course), but with the neighborhood business sector that can, with public sector help, become an integral part of the solution.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Vending the Rules

In today's NY Daily News our good friend Errol Louis opines about the plight of the poor street vendors. It is a classic case of misplaced sympathy; not because most of these hawkers are don't work hard often under extremely trying conditions. But because Errol's real concerns should be for the folks who are running the stores, often selling the same goods that are being sold on the street right in front of the retailers who are paying rent, taxes, and yes, also being hit by the various city agencies for fines and violations designed more for the sheer collection of money rather than for any real protection of the public good.

It is simply not fair for the city to allow for the further proliferation of peddlers, something that Louis and the Street Vendor Project calls for, while the retailers who provide the bulk of employment in the city and support the tax base are made to compete on an unlevel playing field. The license to vend is a few hundred dollars a year. If the city wants more street vendors the first thing it should do is to cut the commercial real estate tax in half!

After all, the commercial real estate tax that was raised by 25% in 2002 was effectively a comparable rent increase for all the store owners of the city. Neighborhood retailers are the backbone of New York's economy and they shouldn't be forced to compete with peddlers who pay no rent, taxes and clog up the streets threatening pedestrian safety.

As for the fruit and vegetable peddler plague that we have been commenting on for the last year, in what lexicon of fairness can you allow a fruit seller to set up shop right in front of a supermarket, a store that may be paying as much as $500,000 a year in real estate taxes alone? Then, when the peddler continually is allowed to undesell the store and the store must let some of its union workers go because of thousands of lost weekly sales dollars, how does the city benefit?

And one other thing. There are roughly 9,000 food vendor licenses and only about half as many food cart permits. What does this mean? It means that cart permit owners are hiring licensees to work for them. Is anyone checking the wages, benefits and working conditions of these contract laborers? There are fruit carts operating on 86th Street on the East Side of Manhattan that are going all night long, seven days a week. Is that just one struggling vendor?

Come on Errol, save the rachmones for the store owners and their workers and take a look at the situation from their perspective. Trust us, it will be a real eye-opener.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Water Torture

The City Council held a hearing yesterday on the snafu at the DEP over the agency's congenital stupidity in effectively processing the water bills for city homeowners and renters. For those of you too young to remember this incapacity is not something of recent vintage; the DEP has a proven track record of inefficiency with a broken record of promises to remedy this measfeasance over the years.

Yet, as we have pointed out, DEP has stalled the necessary start of a pilot program for the installation of commercial food waste disposers, claiming it would cost the city too much money. How could these people know, given their total lack of fiscal expertise?

Caloric Acid

In yesterday's NY Times the paper focuses on the Department of Health's inane idea of forcing only those restaurants that actually provide nutritional information to post calorie information on their menus. From the reactions of some New Yorkers the idea is getting a fat thumbs down. As the Times reports, conversations with customers indicates that the goal of the Health Department to create healthier eating "could have a hard time reaching its goal."

The rule is replete with unscientific wishful thinking. One fast food customer told the Times that, "I don't think people who count calories eat at McDonald's." This commonly held perception is right on the money. According to researchers only 7% of all of the folks who eat out actually count calories. Most have no clue as to their meaning or purpose; "Health officials hope the law will at least make a dent in a nation full of calorie dunces. Most people have no idea how many calories they should eat every day or how many calories foods contain..."

As Dr. Marion Nestle of NYU told the Times, "I can't do it, and I figure if I can't do it no one can do it." Dr. Nestle points out that a calorie is an abstract concept that most folks don't grasp; and in the absence of knowledge and awareness the menu labeling becomes an exercise in appearing good without actually doing any good.

Yet, the proposal will do harm to the franchisees who will have to pay for this confusion-Starbucks has 87,000 drink combinations- and the in a hurry New Yorkers who will have to wait while the folks on line in front of them try to puzzle out the menu information. All of which is all the more reason for the City Council to intervene to craft more sensible and comprehensive nutritional requirements for area eateries.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

DEP All Wet

In a shocking front page expose, the NY Times reports on the scandalous failure of the Department of Environmental Protection to adequately tabulate and collect the city's hundreds of thousands of water bills. As the paper says, " least on paper, tens of thousands of property owners have not paid a penny for water for at least two years."

What is truly alarming is that the agency is constrained from collecting because its record keeping is so bad that it couldn't properly defend its own billing in any litigation ("because its records are so unreliable"). Clearly this is one city agency that literally can't find its ass with both hands.

What makes all of this interesting to us is the fact that the DEP s the major roadblock in the way of approving the pilot program for commercial waste disposers. DEP estimates that it may cost the city $2 billion if these devices are legalized. Using whose calculations?

It is time for the City council to re-open this issue and remove any oversight role from this beleaguered department. The reality is that there is nothing that comes out of this agency that can be believed and until it is overhauled more responsible folks should be put in charge of this crucial waste disposal question.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Trans Fat Oils Prove Slippery

In today's NY Times the paper reports on an experiment that it conducted on alternatives to the use of trans fat. The experiment was done at the Institute of Culinary Education and the results were decidedly mixed (even though the paper's picture caption puts the best spin on the ban). In the first place, it was clear that baked goods would present the greatest challenge. The results of the baking experiments were less appealing in their presentation (they looked less appealing) even while the taste seemed to be the same.

Some of the cooking was done with coconut oil, which seemed to give good taste results but is considered to be more expensive. The issue of the length of the products shelf-life was also raised. What the experiment seems to indicate is that the issue of taste and the question of longevity-a key to the economics of the industry-makes the transition to non trans fat alternatives (not even bringing in the question of supply) problematic.

The question of cost, which we have raised before, also may have a differential impact on the city's smaller neighborhood eateries. Given the amount of enforcement that the DOH does, the cost issue should have been more thoroughly vetted. The fact that it wasn't is further evidence of the lack of thoroughness in the Board of Health's process.

All of which seems to strengthen the case to throw this issue, along with the menu labeling one, into the city council for review. While the Board of Health has little concern about the economic impacts, the legislature should be in a position to raise this key variable and factor it in to any new regulatory initiative.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fruits and Veggies on the Way

In a continuation of the city's attempt to work with bodegas to supply healthier products for low-income New Yorkers, the NY Post reports that the Health Department announced yesterday that they will implement a plan "that supplies discounted carrots and apples to 60 bodegas in the city's poorest unhealthiest neighborhoods to help combat obesity."

As Commissioner Frieden told the paper, "eating fruits and vegetables can prevent obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease." Now the big unanswered question is how the city is going to get low-income New Yorkers, and especially poor kids, to want to eat the better, healthier foods. The Post tells us that a "startling survey" found that only 2% of bodegas in Harlem and only 4% of these outlets in East Harlem sold green veggies. "And a majority don't sell fruits."

Well, aside from the fact that 7 Elevens in the tony suburbs don't sell these things either, it is clear that the paucity of fresh fruit and vegetable outlets is primarily a function of lack of demand. What is missing from the DOH initiative, and we have said this often, is a plan to put boots on the ground in a neighborhood based grass roots effort to raise community awareness about healthier eating.

Which is why we have been encouraging the city to look at the expansion of Dr. Oz's Health Corps concept, already installed in nine schools in the city. Changing attitudes is a key component and the Health Corps, by targeting young people, is a good beginning. It is also important, however, to take this school-based initiative and link it up with community-based outreach in order to widen the campaign in the city's diverse neighborhoods.

The last piece of the puzzle is to see how we can incentivize the building of some new larger supermarkets in low income areas, ones that feature the kinds of products that are healthier to consume. All of the food store owners in these neighborhoods must be brought into the game plan so that there is a true public-private partnership established.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Menu Myopia

It is becoming more and more clear to a number of city council members that the Department of Health's recently passed proposal for menu labeling just doesn't make sense. As the NY Daily News reports this morning efforts are under way to persuade the council to draft a more sensible alternative to the current regulation.

The substantive issue here relates to the impractical nature of the labeling requirement for menus that offer such a wide variety of mix-and-match items, items that are also in constant flux because of changing ingredients and recipes. As the Alliance's Richard Lipsky told the News about the menu labeling, " is impossible to comply with any degree of lucidity...[and]...There's no evidence this will have an impact on consumer behavior."

What we have here is a salvo of hope; hope that somehow, in spite of the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence to support the conclusion, posting menu labels with caloric content will (in the words of yesterday's fatuous NY Times editorial) shock ("We can already savor the astonshment") the overweight consumer into picking a healthier alternative to the double cheeseburger. We call this plan, a variant of the criminal justice efforts to have youngsters talk to hard boiled cons in the hope that they will be fearful enough to live law-abiding lives, the "Scared Skinny" plan.

Without the evidence that the proposal will have any appreciable impact on fast food customers-How can you be astonished if you simply have no idea about what any of the posted numbers mean?- what the city is doing is grossly interfering with the business operations of thousands of independently owned fast food outlets. It is the classic epitomization of Machiavelli's political advice: "It is better to appear good than to be good."

It goes without saying that the council also needs to involve itself here if only for institutional reasons. There is no way that the body should allow the mayor to legislate. Certainly whenever the council impinges on the executive functions of government the mayor is lightening quick to respond in court. The Speaker needs to demonstrate that the council is not going to simply rubber stamp the mayor's legislative initiatives when they are dressed up as regulatory proposals.

It is our view that the menu labeling idea would not stand the scrutiny of a single council hearing; that's how ludicrous it is in both intent and in implementation. What the council needs to do is to draft a more sensible and comprehensive bill that seeks to involve the other 90% of New York City's restaurants in a broad-based collaboration in the fight against childhood and adult obesity.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rats on a Sinking Ship

In today's NY Times the paper reports on the city's efforts to control its rat epidemic. The conclusion: "Instead of waiting for residents' complaints and responding with rat poison and baits, officials want to tackle the root cause of infestation. They hope to reduce the number of rats by curtailing the food supply..."

Well, what do do you know? The city is finally coming to the conclusion that the Alliance has been advocating for close to four years. Yet, in spite of this welcome epiphany, neither the Times or the city has seen fit to address the main issue that the Alliance has been in the forefront of: the use of commercial food waste disposers to eliminate the food supply that the vermin feed on.

Earlier in the year the council and the mayor had agreed essentially to postpone any pilot program for food waste for at least three years, effectively discarding it into the garbage. So, therefore, the major source of food waste, the organic garbage that is produced by the city's restaurants and food stores, will continue to be stored on premise where it is commingled with the food that is being prepared for sale or service to customers.

All of this footdragging is a result of bogus hysteria from so-called environmental groups who are evidently more concerned with the algae in the Jamaica Bay than they are with the disease bearing rodents in the city's low income (and increasingly all-income) neighborhoods. Clearly, in the thousands of words in today's Times story, the exclusion of the food waste disposers issue was a glaring omission.

Food Policy and the Food Business

Our basic premise in all of our discussions of the city's efforts to craft a food policy-whether in regards to trans fat or in the attempt to insure greater access to healthier food-is that any policy proposal, if it is to be effective, needs to include in a collaborative way the city's food retailers, wholesalers and restauranteurs.

This is the point that Richard Lipsky makes in today's NY Daily News story on the new "food czar." As Lipsky points out, "The new food czar should be a person who is sensitive to the economics of the food distribution system as well as the health issue." This is imperative so that we can avoid regulatory heavy-handedness that, because it lacks sensitivity to the economics, uses coercive edicts to impose a politically correct public health ideology.

The supermarkets, bodega, green grocers and restaurants need to be made partners in any public health effort. At the same time, the city needs to understand that the businesses are over-taxed and over-regulated; and that enlisting their support means looking for ways to make these businesses more productive.

When the speaker of the city council talks about getting fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income New Yorkers she needs to realize that, by-passing the existing retail sector, she may be making it less likely that her goals will be achieved. This results from the fact that lasting solutions must be incorporated within the established business model, and not through a methodology that seeks to create an alternative route that weakens the viability of local stores and restaurants.

Another key factor here is the need to address the hearts and minds side of the equation. The public health community all too often views the food industry as the "evil empire." What is missing in this demonization is the reality of consumer consciousness and preferences. Certainly manufacturer's try to generate demand with their advertisements but the stores that sell the products have much less flexibility in the marketing of the products they sell.

What this means to us is that the city and the food retailers and restaurant owners need to get together in a collaborative public health initiative that begins to educate consumers and customers about the need to eat better and live a healthier life-style. This is precisely what the Health Corps is all about. All of us, business owners and public health experts alike, are concerned with health. We just need to find a way to row the boat together in the same direction.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Trans Fat to Hit the Fire

Both the NY Daily News and the NY Post are reporting that the NYC Board of Health will vote tomorrow to implement the two proposals that were first introduced at a meeting in late October. The first, which would ban all trans fat in restaurants, received a withering rebuke from local eateries and the Alliance, and it now appears that the ban will get a longer phase-in period to allow the neighborhood restaurants to make the transition more smoothly. We applaud the health commissioner for the change here.

The other proposal, the so-called menu-labeling initiative, appears to be getting the green light without any change; and without any real input from the folks who run these chain restaurants. If the City Council doesn't get involved, and there are indications that it will, this proposal appears headed straight to the courtroom.

The problem with the idea is that it is directed at the 10% of city restaurants that actually provide nutritional information to their customers while exempting the bulk of those that don't. In addition, there is absolutely no indication that this kind of an education will have any resonance with consumers. As we have pointed out, such a radical public health measure, one that would greatly impact on the economics of the industry, should be proceeded by some research that gives some promise of its efficacy.

No studies of this kind, ones that have been peer reviewed and analyzed by non-biased researchers, appear to be out there. In their absence, the city should not be moving forward in this delicate area. In this case we are hopeful that the City Council will intervene with more sensible legislation that would have a better impact on public health education.

Monsey Rallies: Wal-Mart Out of the Neighborhood!

In Monsey, New York yesterday, a coalition of residents, businesses and labor rallied against the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter right on the Route 59 site that the developer has slated for building the giant store. As today's frontpage Rockland Journal News story points out the rally was organized by the Alliance and was also spearheaded by Assemblywoman-elect Ellen Jaffee as well as Legislator-elect Bruce Levine.

The size and scope of the demonstration was achieved, however, through the combined efforts of Local 1262, with its president Harvey Whille, and the efforts of a great many Monsey residents who came out with their babies in carriages to protest the impact that the super- center would have on traffic and community quality-of-life.

The traffic issues keep on predominating because the developer's consultants appear poised to minimize the impact that the roughly 3,000,000 additional cars would bring to the already clogged local arteries. As the News reports, "...detractors repeated their concerns yesterday that the store would bring more traffic to the already congested two-lane section of Route 59. Some said that was particularly worrisome for members of the Orthodox Jewish community who walk there on the Sabbath."

The impact on local businesses was also a concern expressed yesterday and we would direct everyone's attention to the great new book by Stacy Mitchell, "The Big Box Swindle," that points out how stores like Wal-Mart, unlike the local businesses, suck the dollars out of the community. In a rather funny remark a Wal-Mart spokesperson, in comments to the paper, denied that the company had any negative impact on local stores; "Wal-Mart stores 'actually bring increased customer flow to small businesses in the areas'..."

The rally, the first with a number of others to follow, was designed to heighten local awareness that this development was definitely not a "done-deal." With the developer's environmental study just starting to wend its way through the review process, the Alliance plans to continue to galvanize community opposition to the Walmonster.

In a related story in today's NY Times, the paper reports on the effort by Wal-Mart to say "Thank You to Workers." Reacting to the stinging criticisms leveled by the WakeUpWalMart group, the company is making nice to its workers by extending them additional discounts during the holidays and by providing them with a mechanism to air their grievances.

Given the company's labor policies, however, it is likely that the grievance procedures will be perceived as a way for the Walmonster to spot malcontents as a first step toward their elimination. All of these gimmicks are certainly no substitute for a progressive labor policy.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Food Czar, Bodegas and Broccoli: The Need for a Health Corps

In today's NY Sun the always provocative Andrew Wolf writes sarcastically about the decision by the mayor and council speaker to seek to appoint a food czar. Wolf's position is that the city is acting paternalistically in its belief that only through the intervention of a benevolent city government will the poor folks be taught to eat what's good for them.

Wolf points out that in this effort the city is singling out the neighborhood bodega as the prime culprit in the unhealthy food options available to New Yorkers. He goes on to say, and we applaud his sentiment, that bodegas "are a wonderful institutions that help make New York so livable." Wolf goes on to stress that, "The administration and the council simply can't resist the paternalistic agenda of making choices for the poor that they are surely incapable of making for themselves."

Well, this is a bit more complex than Wolf would allow. Clearly, with the disparate rates of obesity-related disease in poorer neighborhoods, poor health choices are being made. The real issue here is the question of whether a paternalistic government intervention will help to change the course for folks who are being beguiled by sugary advertisements and the proliferation of fast food choices in their communities.

It is our belief that change needs to be developed from the ground up and if government does have a role to play, and we believe that it does, that role should be conceived as a catalytic one-designed to generate grass roots health activism. In the words of the reinventing government crowd, the city should look to steer and not row. The rowing should be in the community where young people and their families begin to take charge of insuring the spread of healthier life-styles in their communities.

This is what we have described as the demand side of the equation. Awareness, education and the resultant activism in the neighborhoods of this city. As Wolf points out he has never been in a bodega that didn't sell diet coke, and we will attest to the fact that if you're going to buy one of those cans in a bodega you should look carefully at the expiration date since, precisely because of a lagging demand, those cans languish in the coolers until way after their sell date.

This is why the editorial in the NY Times this morning on advertising for healthier food misses the point. The industry effort to advertise healthier food will not be successful until the root causes of the appeal of these treats is addressed. There is in our opinion a psycho-social dynamic here that is aided and abetted by the advertisers but was not created by them. The foods our filling some underlying unmet needs that relate to the conditions under which people live.

Which is exactly why the Health Corps concept that we have been promoting is so crucial. The HC looks to get right at the consciousness and behavior of young people with the objective of converting them into change agents for healthier living. The dynamic Dr. Oz has spearheaded this effort and what we need to see now is the connection of the government, the food industry and the Health Corps in a comprehensive program to change the health facts on the ground in the city's poorest communities.