Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Making Food Deserts Bloom

The NY Daily News is reporting on the zoning plan being put forward by Manhattan BP Scott Stringer-and the plan looks to remedy the problem of a perceived deficit of supermarkets in certain areas of the city: "Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is starting a food fight he hopes will spill over to targeted neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. He wants to add the availability - make that, scarcity - of food markets in a neighborhood as another mandatory factor developers would have to study and address when they try to build in certain areas."

But what will this "mandatory factor" mean? "Most often, an EIS deals with traffic and parking conditions, air and noise pollution, impact on sewers and other utilities, the availability of schools and city services and the like. Stringer is urging the city's Planning Commission and the Mayor's Office of Environmental Coordination to add food availability to the EIS mix. If proposed development would further strain the food infrastructure, Stringer wants the the city to say, "Enough!"

OK, but if "enough's, enough," what will the developer be forced to do? Include a new market even if the economics for such a market might not exist? Or, contrarily, will this mean that the new supermarket will need to be subsidized?: "His proposal is likely to draw pie-in-the-sky criticisms. "In the intent of having flowers bloom in the food desert, do you destroy the foliage that's already planted there?" asked Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist whose clients include the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, an alliance of small supermarkets and food retailers. Lipsky fears that Stringer's proposal would result in additional city zoning and tax subsidies for developers to build big suburban-style supermarkets that would hurt existing markets."

Which, of course, raises the issue of just where these food deserts actually are: "As envisioned by Stringer, his new EIS requirement would apply to these "food desert" neighborhoods: Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan; the South Bronx, Williamsbridge/Wakefield and portions of Pelham Parkway in the Bronx; Jamaica and Far Rockway in Queens; Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and St. George and Stapleton on Staten Island."

Here's how Stringer sees the issue: "Three million New Yorkers live in these so-called “food deserts,” areas of the city where there is no fresh supermarket within walking distance. The City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process already measures the impact that proposed development would have on the surrounding neighborhood’s water and air quality – the same consideration should be given to local food resources in these nutritionally underserved communities."

This is flat out wrong. Even in the targeted neighborhoods there are numerous supermarkets that are in walking distance of most folks; and indication that we need to be more careful in our analysis of this issue. Something that Stringer reinforces with the following statement: "Last month, my office’s FoodStat analysis compared the food infrastructure in two Manhattan neighborhoods – East Harlem and the East Side – measuring the number of healthy food outlets in each neighborhood against the number of fast food restaurants. Our figures showed that in East Harlem the scarcity of supermarkets and other healthy food options was matched by exploding rates of obesity in the local population."

A startling confusion here of correlation with causation-a view that mischaracterizes the underlying causes of why poorer folks opt for fast food, while higher income people don't. Not to mention that the number of supermarkets in a neighborhood is also a factor of income levels; so that the comparison of East Harlem with the Upper East Side is frankly-and confusedly-invidious.

And, as we've seen with the veggie peddler controversy, one man's desert is another's oasis-and the assertion of the existence of a desert often leads to spectacular failures; as the Montefiore Hospital green cart experiment seems to exemplify. So, as always, the devil's in the details here; but any supermarket plan must put the retention cart ahead of the new market horse. Any other approach will, quite simply, do more harm than good.