Monday, March 03, 2008

Toward a Genuine Food Policy

The recently concluded fight over the green carts bill has produced at least one salutary repercussion: an acknowledgement by all of the participants on both sides of the battle that the city needs to craft a meaningful food policy-a policy that engages store owners and their suppliers and one that doesn't rely exclusively on the somewhat limited outlooks of health and food advocates. We're hopeful that the work on developing this policy can now begin in earnest because there are real challenging issues that face all of us who are concerned with both healthy eating as well as a healthy neighborhood business climate.

One of the major challenges here devolves from the issue of affordability-something that Errol Louis underscores in yesterday's NY Daily News: "Far too many of the 300,000 or so New Yorkers who pack up each year to relocate elsewhere in America are only going as far as the suburbs, many of them heartbroken that the city of their youth and dreams has become a place where housing costs too much, taxes and fees are too high, the schools don't work and there aren't enough good jobs to go around." And, of course, this applies to scores of neighborhoods throughout the city where the local independently owned retailers are being forced out by rising rents in favor of chain drug stores and banks.

For many of New York's supermarket owners, the city's neighborhoods are rapidly becoming unaffordable; with the resulting decline of good food at reasonable prices for our middle class neighborhoods-adding to the supermarket gap in low income areas that has been amply chronicled. A New York City food policy needs to treat the delivery of healthy food as an essential service; and to treat the viability of neighborhood food retailers as a government priority in achieving this policy objective.

In order to develop this in the right manner the city needs to accurately understand the challenges of food retailing in all of the city's diverse neighborhoods. The task should begin with a comprehensive city mapping of food stores, and a series of in-depth discussions with retailers and their food suppliers. For way too long an understanding of this issue, particularly in the media, has been delegated to folks who have a limited understanding of the realities of food distribution and retailing.

Some of this misconstruing of food realities is on display in a recent post in the Gotham Gazette, an outlet that has yet to post anything from someone who actually knows something about the topic. In this missive, Jennifer March-Joly dots the "I's" and crosses the "T's" of our point: "While some New Yorkers enjoy the "luxury" of a grocery store just down the block, many low-income families live far from any place to buy healthy, high-quality produce at affordable prices. Hundreds of thousands of New York City residents live in neighborhoods with no supermarket, no green grocer and no farmers market. Families must go to great lengths to purchase food outside their neighborhoods or make do with what corner bodegas supply -- largely canned and boxed goods."

The fact is that almost every city neighborhood has a supermarket, or in most cases a multiple of such markets. We need to go beyond rhetoric and ideology and begin to identify just where there aren't any markets-and devise ways to insure that the obstacles preventing their presence are overcome. At the same time, we need to insure that any policy that encourages the siting of new markets doesn't exclude independent neighborhood operators like the folks at Key Food who operate over 100 local supermarkets in the boroughs-or the largely Dominican-owned C-Towns, Pioneers, Bravos and Met Foods that have done so much to revitalize many local shopping districts.

In this we are in agreement with March-Joly: "Ideally, every neighborhood would have a grocery store or supermarket within walking distance of the majority of its residents. Supermarkets relieve a neighborhood's food deficit, anchor a community and provide good stable jobs." However, we need specific locations and not empty bloviating on this topic-with opportunities for existing retailers to take advantage of any incentives that government policy may offer.

We don't need to simply replace hard-working independents with large chain markets; an equitable policy needs to find the proper balance in all of this, recognizing that in certain neighborhoods immigrant store owners reflect the demographics of the community. And we need to transcend the simplistic depiction of certain consumption habits, a characterization that places blame on the existing stores or the lack of existing stores for the failure of certain folks to eat healthier food.

More in-depth evaluation needs to be done about why people choose to eat certain less healthy things. In another Gotham Gazette post we get the following instructive corrective in a discussion of the city's Healthy Bodega" program: "What is true, said some advocates, is participating has proved to be difficult for some owners. Some bodegas do not have adequate space for fresh produce, while others cannot afford to lose profits on a product whose shelf life is relatively short. "Lets say you stock up on watermelons for Memorial Day and it rains," said Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "If you're a small bodega, you're out."

And, as one bodega owner remarks; "Eating healthy is expensive," said Ali Saleh, the owner's brother. "People come in here with $3, and they still owe us a quarter." Health department officials said they are exploring ways to help bodegas get loans so they can afford to either purchase fruits and vegetables or revamp their stores to make room for them. Those loans, though, will not necessarily make such food more affordable to their customers."

Which may mean that a great deal more grass roots education needs to be done-and the hopefulness from our friend Sabrina Baronberg at DOH may be just a tad optimistic: "We know there is focused demand in the community," said Baronberg. "It's not true that people in these communities are not interested." Of course, if demand was truly in place stores would be scurrying to fill it-just as they do when a neighborhood gentrifies. As Sung Soo Kim told the Gazette: "Built-in unhealthy diet patterns, the fundamental cause of the health problem, must be changed through a long-term, protracted educational campaign by the government, health food advocates, schools and shopkeepers in cooperation."

Ironically, the folks at Jetro Cash & Carry are training their customers to adapt to the changes that the city wants-providing information on how to handle fresh produce and sell other healthier items; no one from the DOH or EDC has ever had a discussion with Jetro even though the company supplies almost all of the 13,000 bodegas and sees around 5,000 store owners a week at its Hamilton Avenue warehouse alone (Jetro has five city outlets).

Any nascent food policy must involve the Jetros, the Key Foods, the National Supermarket Association, the green grocers and the unions that represent supermarket workers, if it is going to have a successful impact. We need to beyond ideology and collaborate with those folks who actually know what is going on in the streets of our city-and who understand the challenges of running a successful business in a city that is often hostile to neighborhood entrepreneurs.