Monday, July 10, 2006

What is Food Justice?

On Friday our friends at DMI posted an interesting piece on "food justice" in NYC. They are one of the few commentators to give Joel Rivera some props for his suggestion that the city explore using zoning to curb fast food outlets. They also praise Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez for her "Bodegas as Catalysts for Healthy Living Act, " a bill that would provide SBA grants to groups willing "to work with bodegas to create healthy food inventories."

We are especially heartened by DMI's criticism of the ridicule that some heaped on Rivera-"most of whom probably don't live in low-income areas." The Institute also pointedly surveys the eating choices in many of these neighborhoods and opines, "it's a wonder that more people are not lying along Nostrand Avenue or 125th Street leaking grease and sugar from various parts of their bodies."

What we do take issue with, however, is the characterization of neighborhood food shopping as a health wasteland. As we have said before there needs to be more recognition of the incredible success story represented by the independent supermarkets of this city. In addition, it isn't appropriate to try to contrast the number of supermarkets in high income areas with the number in poorer districts. The amount of disposable income is a key varuable that must be factored into the equation.

The point about Rivera's zoning suggestion is that it is based on what we would call the Gresham's law of food shopping: bad food choices drive out good food choices. The proliferation of poor eating choices makes it hard for better alternatives to flourish.

The reality is that fast food outlets, backed as they are by the public financial markets, are at a competitive advantage versus locally owned food stores, who are increasingly priced out of areas by escalating commercial rents. The proliferation of chain drug stores in the city has also added to this lamentable situation by pushing out neighborhood supermarkets with their ability to pay higher rents.

Maybe what NYC needs is some kind of inner city food initiative (like in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) that, along with financial incentives for supermarkets to invest in certain areas, also comes with some healthy eating performance goals as a prerequisite for the aid. By all means, though, the best public policy strategy is to encourage local economic growth and place some restraint on chain store growth.