Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bodegas, Broccoli and Beets

In today's NY Post the paper has a story about the effort launched by the NYC DOH to get the city's bodegas to stock healthier products. After the first of the year, the Department will be launching a pilot program to sell skim milk with 15 bodegas. If the initial experiment proves to be successful, the city will seek to expand the program to include other healthier products such as diet sodas, fresh vegetables and low-fat snacks.

The commissioner in charge of the program, our good friend Dr. Lynn Silver, is quoted as saying, "Bodegas are an important source of food in communities....But many stores stock only whole milk." We've met with Dr. Silver and her staff and in general are supportive of the Department's efforts. We do, however, find it problematic when the onus is placed on small convenience stores to take the lead in the promotion of the healthier life-styles we all agree are better alternatives for all people.

Bodegas, as any retail business, respond to the demands of consumers. As one store owner commented to the Post, "'I've tried selling skim milk but nobody buys it.'" The paper does quote a number of local residents who say that they'd like to see healthier products offered but, "'They just don't carry it.'"

This of course is misleading since, despite the propaganda from some sources, all of these low income neighborhoods have a number of supermarkets and green grocers where a wider selection of healthier products are offered. A bodega is not designed for this role and with narrow margins and small space it must be receptive to the customer base. Trendsetting will quickly put a store out of business.

That being said, it is important for the city, storeowners and the community to work together. The Department of Health needs, as Dr. Silver wisely put it, to "work both sides of the curve of supply and demand." This means finding ways to incentivize storeowners to experiment along the lines of the current pilot proposal. A good start would be the lowering of some of the regulatory and licensing burdens that make it difficult to make a profit in many of these neighborhoods. In addition, the city could expand its bodega security camera giveaway so that store owners can be made to feel as if they are stakeholders with the city.

It also means, however, that a greater effort must be made with consumers to choose the healthier products. If the demand is there the supply will follow. Stores can be part of an educational effort but any punitive approach is doomed to failure because it would violate basic laws of economics.

One last point. The city is experiencing a proliferation of questionably legal food vendors. These vendors, ostensibly regulated by the DOH, are operating with impunity in front of bodegas, green grocers and supermarkets. If DOH wants partners in its healthy living experiment, it can start by cracking down on these folks who are literally stealing business from the city's legitimate stores.