Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Gotham Grocery Shoppimg

Our friends at the Gotham Gazette have just posted an article by Gail Robinson about the paucity of grocery stores in NYC's poorer neighborhoods and the relative lack of healthy food options at those stores that are there. A number of misconceptions in the piece deserve to be addressed.

In particular the Gazette story makes the claim that "some poor neighborhoods lack even a simple medium sized grocery store." This is simply not true. In every city neighborhood you will find medium sized C-Towns, Pioneers, Bravos or Associateds. In fact just check out the EIS that was done on behalf of the developer of the proposed South Bronx Gateway Mall. Scores of stores are listed in the three mile trade area (or consult our own impact analysis for the East Bronx BJ's).

This is true all over the city. One of the more interesting observations on this issue came from our discussions with Kathy Wylde who now heads the NYC Partnership but who had previously headed up the Partnership's housing and neighborhood business development section. Wylde told us that what surprised her was that in every neighborhood that the Partnership looked to encourage greater retail growth to accompany their new housing she found a renovated supermarket.

The reality is that today's independent supermarkets represent a success story that is still largely unacknowledged. There are over 4oo of these markets that are owned and operated by an enterprising group of Dominican immigrants who, in partnership with wholesalers like Krasdale and White Rose, took over and renovated the store units that were abandoned by national chains fleeing the city in the wake of the urban disorders of the 1970s.

The lionization of LISC and its Retail Initiative, an effort that begat the East Harlem Pathmark, misses the way in which these folks completely overlooked the existing supermarkets in the area. In fact the former head of LISC told us when we met with the organization that he hadn't even realized that those stores were there. There is a residue of this lack of recognition in the Robinson story.

Then there is the issue of price. If you refer to our megastore section on the website you will find that the proponents of the Guiliani rezoning plan also forwarded the "poor pay more for less" argument. We thoroughly deconstructed this urban myth by demonstrating that on the contrary it was the rich, on the East and West Sides of Manhattan, who paid more. Not only that, we showed that the independent markets were often underselling the chains, and this was confirmed by the city's HRA's "Diets and Dollars" newsletter.

It is also important to address the issue of health. Focusing on bodegas isn't a fair way to understand the problem. The bodega is a small store with only limited selling space. In addition, it is a convenience store that needs to sell high margin items in order to survive. It is also enmeshed in a neighborhood's consumer demands. It is unrealistic to expect the bodeguero to be a health trend-setter.

The demand for the full range of healthy food products that you see in the more middle-class areas is reflected in the store offerings in those neighborhoods. If the various health organizations and activists, working with neighborhood stores, are able to reeducate low-income consumers then you will see a rapid change in the store inventory in those areas. It is simply supply and demand and not any sinister plot to create poor obese children (similar to the accusations that beer companies were marketing the heavier alcohol content malt liquor to Black and Latino neighborhoods).

A full study of the NYC food industry is long overdue. Such a study needs to focus on historical trends, income and store distribution, range of goods offered, as well as price differentials that may or may not exist. The worthwhile effort to encourage healthier eating patterns should be a collaborative effort and shouldn't rest on the erroneous demonization of hard-working, risk-taking immigrant entrepreneurs.