Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hungry for Better Answers

In today's NY Sun columnist Alicia Colon takes a look at the issue of hunger and asks some politically incorrect questions that certainly need to be asked. The one point that really deserves mention is the question of the affordability of healthier foods. It is an issue we have seen come up constantly in the discussions of poverty, obesity and health.

As Colon indicates, however, there is no reason why poor folks can't eat healthier foods. As she points out, "The idea that nutritional foods are too costly for the poor is ridiculous. Potatoes, rice, beans, flour all cost less than the takeout foods from the restaurants that populate the inner city. The problem is, of course, that they require cooking, but why cook if you don't have to?"

What we have here is the reality that the culture of inner city life needs to be taken into consideration. Putting calorie signs up on menus, as the Health Commissioner wants to do, means absolutely nothing if the awareness and will to be proactive on issues of health and nutrition is lacking. This is the demand side of the equation that we have been emphasizing in the discussion of health and food access.

We need to also be aware that the emphasis on charity and "taking care of" the poor can have unintended negative consequences. The more we take care of folks the less they may be prepared to take care of themselves. People need to be empowered to change but, as Colon points out, "but then, without the hungry, wouldn't the anti-hunger advocates be unemployed?"

Friday, November 24, 2006

Bigger Bottle Bill and Supermarkets

In today's NY Daily News the paper reports on what apparently is the governor-elect's support for expanding the bottle bill to include other containers. This expansion would raise havoc with the already space-challenged New York City food stores and create another unintended consequence to making the city's food stores more proactive when it comes to the promotion of healthier eating.

In order to promote healthier eating the city is already trying to figure out how to make the promotion of fruits and vegetables, the featuring of low-fat milk, and the favoring of diet cola over the regular brand, part of the normal marketing practices of inner city stores. These objectives are not always cost effective, and often take away rather than contribute to the bottom line.

What is clear is that the bottle bill is expensive for stores to manage and takes away from the already preciously tiny selling areas that city stores are forced to cope with. So it is counterproductive to promote healthier food products while at the same time adding more expensive regulations for the stores to cope with.

The same is true in the area of garbage collection, where the city council is dragging its feet over the proposal to introduce a pilot program for commercial food waste disposer. Opponents of such a plan bristle when it comes to "making tax payers pay for the garbage collection of the private sector."

Helping to make city food stores more productive should be seen as an incentive for grocers to partner with the city in other areas-such as in the promotion of healthier eating. Adding tax and regulatory burdens have the opposite effect. It is high time that policy makers understood that the promotion of healthier eating and the promotion of a healthier economic climate for food stores is mutually compatible.

Post Fries Frieden's Fat

In today's NY Post the paper editorializes against Health Commissioner Frieden's proposal to ban trans fat. The Post is taken by the warning issued by the Heart Association that "there is a potential for unintended and adverse consequences" if the ban is pushed forward in a precipitous manner.

The problem, as the Post points out, is that in the absence of an adequate supply of alternative oils and other ingredients restaurants will be forced to switch to even less healthy saturated fats. The Post also points out that the switch to different ingredients has taste implications that need to be considered. After all, if the folks don't like the new trans fat-free recipes where will that leave the restaurants?

In our view, especially in the light of the city's initiative to create a new "food coordinator" job, it is important that the DOH and the city council look for ways to create a collaborative food policy that includes a buy-in from the city's restaurants and food stores. No more edicts are needed if there is a real effort to get the private sector engaged as full partners in a drive for healthier eating.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Food Czar to be Named

In a move that follows all of the posts that we have done on this subject for the past few months, the mayor and the council speaker announced yesterday that the city was going to name a food czar to, in the words of the NY Times, "help make healthier options available to poor New Yorkers." A key aspect of the program is geared to insuring that all those who are eligible for food stamps will be able to receive them; but the city is also looking to engage New York's bodegas in an expansion of the fat free milk initiative that was launched by the DOH earlier this year.

AS the Times indicates there is a concern here about food access and the paper references a DOH study that found a lack of supermarkets in neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, "...two neighborhoods in Brooklyn with high rates of poverty and obesity..." The Times credits Speaker Quinn for pushing the mayor to create a food coordinator to deal with this matrix of food access issues.

One thing that is missing from both the Times article and a piece in today's NY Post as well, is any comment from stakeholders in the supermarket and grocery store business. It has been our contention all along that the food retail and wholesale sectors need to be brought to the table in order to address the important role that the private sector needs to play in this policy initiative.

With all of the furor over the city's proposed trans fat ban and the proposal to require certain restaurants to provide detailed menu labeling, it should become clear that the city's restaurants, bodegas, green grocers and supermarkets must be brought into the discussion if we are going to address in an effective way the issue of food access and health.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eating Healthy in the Neighborhood

Once again the Gotham Gazette does a great service by focusing some attention on the problems of food access in low income areas of the city. As authors Josh Brustein and Gail Robinson point out there is a correlation between the high rates of obesity heart disease and diabetes in New York and the relative lack of good food options in some neighborhoods.. As they say, "These problems are particularly severe in low-income neighborhoods. The disparity of access to affordable, healthy food between New York's wealthy and poor neighborhoods is regularly cited as a factor..."

But how much of a factor is not something that anyone really has gotten a handle on. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a real good understanding of the supermarket industry in the city. Some of this stems from a continuation of the arguments that were made in the mid-nineties over the building of a Pathmark supermarket in East Harlem and Mayor Guiliani's mega store proposal.

According to the proponents of these two initiatives there were two unassailable truths: (1) low income neighborhoods had no real good quality supermarkets; and (2) the markets that they did have made "the poor pay more for less." Of course, this was the so-called study that was done by Mark Green's Department of Consumer Affairs that glossed over two even more salient facts: (1) prices of groceries in low income areas were lower than in the higher rent districts of wealthy Manhattan; and (2) there had been a veritable explosion of new supermarket expansion in many poorer neighborhoods of the city, an event that went unexamined in the face of all the hyperbolic victimology from some food advocates.

This mindset yields the following comment from Dr. Frieden, "It is not possible easily to get a healthy diet in many of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City." This is simply not true. As the Gazette story points out, bodegas are unlikely to carry fresh produce or things like low-fat milk but, "...almost every supermarket carries apples, oranges and bananas...supermarkets are also three times more likely to carry reduced fat milk." The story than goes on to say something that is so completely false that we'd have to question the entire underlying premise of the piece if we didn't know the underlying facts better.

Citing a study done by JC Dwyer the Gazette says, "Food stores generally lose money by carrying fresh fruit and vegetables, but supermarkets carry such products to attract customers." This is flatly untrue. Fresh produce is not a loss leader but a profit center. The problem lies with the demand side of the equation; people in low income areas are not buying the produce with the same degree of frequency that they are in wealthier areas. Supermarkets in the ghettos would love to reverse this trend and it would make a great deal of sense to develop a public-private partnership in this regard to encourage healthier buying patterns.

All of which doesn't mean that there is more that can be done to insure that greater access is made available. We continue to emphasize the need to incentivize further supermarket development in certain areas of the city that could use more stores and encourage advocates to work with the industry to accomplish this task.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Food Co-Op in East New York

In today's NY Times the paper rhapsodizes about the opening of a food co-op in East New York. It is just another example of how the issue of food access is becoming compelling on a number of important levels. Good luck to the five members of the co-op and their 2,500 square foot store.

It might, however, be a better idea if these dedicated folks would hook up with a supermarket operator to figure out how to provide the neighborhood with the fresh vegetables that the Times opines, "will be a healthy addition to an area with high rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, and where French fries are easier to find than ripe tomatoes."

The real key here is to work on the demand side of the equation, because if you don't the five cooperators in East New York will not be in business for long. As we have pointed out, produce is a profit center for any supermarket, and all that is missing is generating customers in low income areas who will buy it at higher levels than they do today.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Kicking Indian Butts

In today's NY Post the Alliance's four year campaign against the Indian cigarette dealers on Long Island gets a measure of vindication with the reported arrest of the "Big Chief"-Ronald Bell- deemed to be the ring leader in the lucrative New York City black market. As the Post says, Bell is "the owner of the a Long Island Indian reservation tobacco shop who allegedly help flood New York City's stores with truckloads of illegal and counterfeit butts."

Not only New York stores, of course. Many of these illegal smokes are also flooding the city streets as backpacked hawkers sell their wares on street corners and in restaurants. This illegal, and deadly selling is costing New York's legitimate store owners over $250 million a year in lost sales and is costing city and state tax collectors over $500 million a year.

Bell and a number of co-conspirators were arrested on "felony tax charges." The Post does, however, get one salient point wrong when it says that the Indian retailer has, as sovereign territory, the right not to charge tax on cigarettes purchased right on the reservation. Not so, tax must be charged on any sale to a non-Indian, no matter where the sale takes place.

Trans Fat Alteration

In today's NY Times reports on the planned revision of the Department of Health's plan to ban trans fat (The NY Sun highlights this revision as well in today's paper). As the story's headline says, "Acting on Industry Complaints, City Will Revise a Plan to Limit Trans Fat." What this means is that a new version of the plan will be submitted to the Board of Health on December 5th, necessitating a new public hearing and an inevitable delay in the Board's disposition of the matter.

Dr. Frieden did not go into the nature of his proposed revisions but did tell the Times that "the changes had been prompted by criticism from people in the restaurant industry who said the proposal would not give them enough time to develop new recipes..." " This is precisely the issue that the Alliance has been trumpeting for the past few weeks.

In the Times piece, the commissioner took pains to disagree with the Heart Association's assessment that the switch could lead restaurants to go back to using saturated fats. Two comments that Frieden made at yesterday's Crain's breakfast, however, deserve to be challenged: That the supply issue was not an issue ("The supply issue is a nonissue"); and that the use of different oils would not impact taste (Which he contradicts in today's story when he says that he has been persuaded that changing recipes "might take more time than the health department had assumed"). How does the commissioner come to know this with such certainty?

All of which underscores the danger involved when health officials try to regulate industries that they are not really expert on, a point that the NY Post's Steve Cuozzo makes rather forcefully in a column this morning. As the columnist points out, the heart association's caveat against the ban should tell the city: "Butt out of a business that you know nothing about and pay attention to delivering basic city services..." Cuozzo also takes issue with what he feels is the paternalistic nature of the attack on predominately fast food joints in low income areas.

Other coverage of the city's about face can be found in the NY Post's story of a longer fat "Trans"ition period for the imposition of a trans fat ban. As Frieden told the Post, "The transition difficulty-getting from here to there-that, I think is real..." The NY Daily News also weighs in on the potential that the ban has for litigation. The paper also elicits a comment from Speaker Quinn that any council legislative effort would be in "consultation" with the Board of Health.

One last point, that the Sun highlights, is the fact that the DOH is contemplating giving technical assistance to local eateries so that they can be made aware of the ban and learn how to make as smooth a transition as possible. This, we believe, is in recognition that the out reach effort was not as effective as it could have been-another Alliance position. Oh, yes. The Sun also reports that Peter Vallone is going ahead with his legislation in spite of the commisioner's misgivings.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Daily News Supports Fat Ban Phase-in

In today's NY Daily News the paper editorializes against the speed in which the DOH is planning to implement its ban on trans fat. The concern, expressed by both the industry and the American Heart Association, is that in the absence of available alternative ingredients restaurants may be forced to switch back to unhealthy saturated fats.

The News is also skeptical about the ability of restaurants to switch over to new alternatives without compromising the taste of the fare being served, something that Commissioner Frieden feels is not an issue. However, as the paper says, "Now, there's mounting evidence he was wrong."

Also at issue is the fate of the smaller local eateries.. The News points out that it took KFC a couple of years and thousands of dollars to devise a palatable alternative. "Small restaurants, even small chains couldn't do that by July 08." All of which means that the current time table for transition may need to be altered, something that Frieden, at today's Crains forum, said was being examined (more on the commissioner's talk in a little while).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

DOH's Heart Burn

In today's NY Post the paper reports on the testimony from the American Heart Association against the proposed ban on trans fat being proposed by the Department of Health. To say that this is counterintuitive is to underplay the incongruity of the position being taken by the association. That being said, there are a number of good points that the good doctors are making on this issue.

The Association's main point is that, in the absence of a plentiful supply of substitute ingredients, restaurants could be forced to shift to poorer substitutes. As the Post points out, "The ban could force cooks to switch from one poison to another..." In regards to this point, AHA's Megan Lozita told the Board of Health, "We are concerned that there is a potential for unintended and adverse consequences..."

Even more encouraging is that the Association is calling for the kind of collaboration that the Alliance has been advocating on this issue from the start. "The heart association's testimony said that government should make restaurants 'our partners' in the goal of reducing trans fat instead of ramming through a ban." Now let's hope that the city council understands that it is in everyone's interest for the legislature to intervene so that this partnership can be forged.

Bodegas Rule

Kudos to the Bodega Association's Jose Fernandez who gets deserved props in a story in today's NY Daily News. The story is part of a News series on the rising influence of Latinos in New York City. Latino retailers and restaurant owners are becoming a force in the economic revitalization of the city's neighborhood. They form a strong base for the Alliance's work against the encroachment of box stores in New York, and we look forward to continued cooperation with these sectors as we make the fight against the Walmonster in the city.

Mastroful Opposition

The Crains In$ider is reporting today that McDonalds has hired Randy Mastro to defend the corporation's interests against the proposed DOH ban on trans fat as well as against its menu label requirements that were the topics of a public hearing last month. It is expected that the Board of Health will rule for the two proposals at its December 5th meeting.

In a potentially interesting turn of events the Insider also reports that Speaker Quinn has given Councilman Vallone the go-ahead to draft legislation in these two areas as well as to proceed with plans to hold a public hearing. If true, this is indeed some good news. It would ,as Crains points out, give the local eateries a greater opportunity to amend the proposals and make them less onerous in their scope and more amenable to a well ordrered transition to a trans fat-free environment.

As we have said, the current transition period leaves too little time for neighborhood restaurants to prepare to find alternative ingredients and prepare the necessary changes in their cuisine. In addition, it is clear that the council needs to take a strong stand that city rule making must follow council law making and not the other way around.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Poor Food Choices?

There is an effort afoot to paint the bleakest possible picture about the food choices that poorer New Yorkers have in certain neighborhoods of the city. If you listen to some of the advocates, it certainly appears that, aside from a few unappetizing bodegas, the residents of East Harlem or the South Bronx are simply out of luck if they are looking for a decent supermarket. It is precisely why Council Speaker Quinn has launched her greenmarket initiative to bring fresh produce to the low income areas.

In today's NY Daily News this theme is continued in Lisa Colangelo's story about "poor" food choices "in some of the city's lowest-income neighborhoods." It appears that the story was prompted by a report that has been just released by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. The report's conclusion: "It shows that large supermarkets are few and far between. And while some have greenmarkets, they are often too pricey for people with fixed and low incomes."

Some of the impetus behind this push comes from the serious incidence of obesity in these very same low income neighborhoods; clearly availability of good food choices is part of any overall effort to combat the expanding waist lines in the inner city. The effort, however, needs to have a dose of realism since the advocates so often don't have any real good understanding of the economics of the food industry.

In the first place, the report of the hunger coalition describes a paucity of "large supermarkets' in low income areas. Other reports like this one talk about the fact that there are more markets in upper income areas than there are in the poorer neighborhoods, as if this was symptomatic or correlative with the rising obesity rates in the poorer nabes.

The reality is that independent supermarkets are an economic success story in New York, something we have been pointing out ever since a similar demonization campaign lead to the subsidizing of the East Harlem Pathmark in 1995. While it is true that there might be fewer markets per capita in these areas this is obviously a function of less disposable income.

In fact we'd be surprised if the statement attributed to a Brownsville activists would prove, on inspection, to be accurate: "In Brownsville, there is just one supermarket in a 15 block area, according to Ed Fowler, executive director of Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen on Fulton street." What is unassailable, however, is that food access is a legitimate public issue and that is precisely why Pennsylvania has launched its "Supermarket Initiative" program.

What is needed here is for advocates, food industry representatives, and elected officials to come together to device an access policy that addresses the underlying health issues surrounding obesity, heart disease and diabetes. As we have pointed out, Congresswoman Velasquez's "Healthy Bodega" bill is a step in the right direction.

A New York supermarket initiative should also be considered in order to improve healthier food access. Ways to incentivize the consumption of fresh produce need to be considered as well. This shouldn't run into any opposition from the supermarket folks since, as we told Commissioner Silver at the DOH, produce is a profit center for all supermarkets and there is nothing store owners would like more than to sell more veggies.

Clearly, there needs to be a general policy discussion here, one that includes the industry. If we are going to create a healthier citizenry it can be done if the effort is collaborative, one that recognizes the crucial economic development variables that are in play in the overall policy development.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Wal-Mart and the Bronx: No Thonx

In today's NY Times the paper highlights the efforts of the anti-Wal-Mart forces to prevent the Walmonster from setting foot in the borough. The Times points out that the Alliance, along with the strong support of the UFCW and much of organized labor, has already stymied the retail giant in the two sites that they had targeted last year.

It is clear, however, as the Alliance and its allies have consistently pointed out, that the Bronx is a potentially fertile ground for the Wal-Mart attempt to get a NYC foothold. The reason lies with the concept of "booty capitalism" that we have been outlining. There is a virulent strain of of this operating in the Bronx under the guise of being "pro-development." Nothing better illustrates this than the recently concluded fights over the Bronx Terminal Market (that at least got Wal-Mart explicitly excluded) and Yankee Stadium.

What's clear, and the comments of BP Carrion in today's Times underscores the point, is that Monty Hall has nothing on some of the leaders in the borough. What is definitely going to happen is that organized labor and a good cross section of the Latino small business community is going to go after the BP for his opportunistic stand on the Walmonster.

The Bronx effort, precisely because of the political climate, needs to be proactive and can't wait on the designation of an actual site. People need to be mobilized early and community-based organizations from across the Bronx need to be linked together. As the Alliance's Richard Lipsky told the Times, "The effort here is to head them off at the pass...What's harder in any of these situations is to organize people around a theory...What made it easier to organize in Staten Island is people knew the store was being planned there."

Kudos need to go out to Councliman Joel Rivera who, unlike Carrion, made a strong statement against the retailer; "I'm of the belief that we have to spur economic development, but at the same time it has to be responsible economic development." Rivera gets it and so do most of the other elected officials we have talked to. Stay tuned to a major anti-Wal-Mart event sometime in the near future, one that will be borough-wide and diverse.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Heart Association Caveat on Trans Fat Ban

In what appears to be counterintuitive, the AHA has quietly submitted testimony that raises questions-not on the "substance" of the trans fat ban, but on the details of its implementation. As reported in the Heartwire newsletter, the Association feels that they can only "conditionally" support the proposed ban.

"Speaking with Heartwire, AHA president Dr. Robert Eckel...said the sudden removal of trans-fatty acids from restaurants is not a practical solution...He said the ban is unrealistic and unfairly punitive to the food and restaurant industry." Eckels, echoing our position on the implementation issue, said "the AHA would like to see a ban phased in slowly, giving restaurants time to adapt, as well as insuring that heart-healthy oils are available, both physically and financially, to restaurants looking to make the change."

A further concern of the Heart Association is "that restaurants and bakeries would replace the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil with saturated fat." Clearly the heart folks are concerned with an unhealthy unintended consequence of the ban. All of which underscores the real need for this issue, as well as the menu proposal, to be taken up by the City Council; something that we feel is getting closer to being a real possibility.

Wal-Mart Minimalists

In Suffern tonight the developer of a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter will hold a dramatization of the old Marx Brothers' line, uttered in explanation by Chico when a husband barged in on him while he was in bed with the man's wife: "Who are you gonna believe, me or your own lying eyes?"

It seems that Jerrold Bermingham, managing director of the real estate company believes that the supercenter will not have much of a traffic impact on the congested Route 59 corridor. As he told the Journal News, his studies have determined that "there would be a minimal impact" on the deadly artery. He also went on to tell the paper that there would not be any harm to local businesses; "I think it became clear that this Wal-Mart is complementary and compatible with the businesses on Route 59..."

Complementary? This guy needs to be drug tested. More like complimentary-with Wal-Mart complimenting all the nearby businesses ("Good job fellas") by first replicating, and then eliminating them. As the Alliance's Richard Lipsky told the paper, "I'm shocked that someone would use the word 'minimal.' It indicates that this process needs a heck of a lot more evaluation."

Assemblywoman-elect Ellen Jaffee has written to the NYSDOT to ask them to evaluate Wal-Mart's Route 59 impact. We plan to join Jaffee to present the real world potential that the proposed 216,000 square foot store will have, not only on 59, but on all of the adjacent roads as well. The developers blithe, cavalier description of a minimal impact indicates precisely why this kind of a process should not be in the hands of folks who have a vested interest in minimizing (a better word) impacts.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bodega Backlash

In a feature story in today's El Diario the paper discusses the latest rash of bodega killings and the failure of the NYPD to fully implement the "Tienda Segura" program that the agency had piloted in 2003. The story followed a press conference that was conducted by Jose Fernandez and the Bodega Association. Fernandez blamed the mayor specifically for the city's failure: "Estamos culpando al alcalde por esta muerta y por el resto de las muertas de los bodegueros..."

The pilot program, which was also supported by a City Council initiative of Joel Rivera that year, was deemed to be an unqualified success by the NYPD but there was no effort on the city's part to expand the worthwhile program. In today's Hoy, given the recent murders, Fernandez calls on the mayor to expand the pilot.

In 2003 the Alliance had worked with the Bodega Association to pressure a reluctant Ray Kelly to support the safe store program. When Kelly first expressed his reluctance, citing the city's fiscal difficulties, we told the commissioner that given the city's confiscatory cigarette tax of that year ( a tax that costs city stores $250 million a year), it was unconscionable for the NYPD to play scrooge with the lives of bodegueros. As we said to Kelly: "At least in the old days when the gangs grabbed money from frightened store owners it was seen as for protection. Now the city wants to take the bodega's money and not give the stores the protection they deserve." Two days later the pilot program was announced.

Zoning and Public Health

In today's post at Gotham Gazette Tom Angotti advocates a more proactive role for city planners in the area of public health. As he points out, "Researchers around the nation are beginning to explore ways in which the built environment of the city affects public health, particularly with respect to epidemics like obesity and asthma."

The question here is to what extent public policy can help to promote a "healthier environment." In this discussion Angotti replays the analysis that we had laid out in our original outline of the fast food zoning controversy, an analysis that owes a debt to the researchers at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Angotti believes that zoning "levers" can be used to "influence the elements that contribute to epidemics even if they alone won't cure them." In this evaluation of zoning the new emphasis is on "health impacts" and the ways in which this variable is as important as safety and welfare. Clearly, as this analysis indicates, access to healthy food options looms large in the search for a healthier environment.

All of which gets us back to the need to devise a health and food access policy that promotes the building of more inner city super markets and the development of incentives for inner city stores and restaurants to promote healthier products and menus. As Angotti closes, "The first step, however, is for the city's planners to reestablish a role for themselves in promoting public health."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New Yorker Features Alliance on Trans Fat

In the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, in its "Talk of the Town section, features the work of Richard Lipsky and the Alliance on the trans fat issue. The magazine also highlights the efforts of Louis Nunez of the Latino Restaurant Association. Nunez took reporter Lauren Collins on a dining tour of some of the best Latino eateries in Manhattan and the Bronx.

In the article Collins describes our efforts, along with those of Chuck Hunt of the Restaurant Association, as a defense of the "Fat Lobby." She observes that it is interesting that the larger chains are somewhat less visible on this issue but she also points out that, as Nunez told her, the smaller ethnic restaurants are much more vulnerable because of their lack of resources and information.

The real issue it appears to us is the fact that these decisions are being placed in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, rather than the city council where they belong. Regulations should be made pursuant to specific legislation and not through any usurpation of power by a health czar. In the near future we will be mobilizing the neighborhood eateries and their representatives in the council to challenge the jurisdiction of the Department of Health.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"Hole Foods" and Trans Fat

In today's NY Post the paper writes about the possible impact of the proposed trans fat ban on the city's franchise donut stores. In particular, the paper focuses on the 300 Dunkin' Donut stores that do over $170 million a year in sales. The company hinted, however, that they are working on compliance and have been so since 2004.

What this story really points out is that the ban will likely have a bigger effect on the city's neighborhood eateries than any of the chains, since these small business folks are still mostly in the dark about the entire issue. It is another reason why the trans fat proposal needs to be fully vetted by the city council in a comprehensive legislative process.

Times Blows Smoke on Indian Smokes

In today's NY Times the paper's Corey Kilgannon writes a long lachrymose article on the plight of the poor Indians on Long Island who will, if John Catsimatidis' lawsuit and the new governor have their way, have to compete fairly in the sale of cigarettes. Along the tear-strewn way Kilgannon manages to avoid any mention of the poor bodega owners in New York City who have lost over 55% of their business to the Indian-driven black market smuggling coming out of the East End of Long Island.

He also fails to mention that this black market activity has resulted in at last three deaths from territorial disputes among the black marketers. The business losses in New York City, losses that have impacted small Mom and Pop stores and not Catsimatidis' supermarket chain, have reached over $1 billion in the past three and one half years. Not to mention the fact that illegal sales of cigarettes have been diverted to finance terrorism.

The Times article also babbles incoherently about "Indian sovereignty," to the point of quoting the inane comment of one of the Indian retailers, "This is like New York taxing New Jersey." First of all, if the Indians were actually sovereign here the United States has every right to impose "import excise taxes" on product coming into the country. In reality, however, the issue of sovereignty has already been disposed of in a Supreme Court decision over ten years ago that ruled that any sovereignty the tribes had did not extend to sales of cigarettes to non-Indians.

All of which was left out in this tear jerker of a story that could have been written by a tribal press agent. The article also omitted the fact that the two tribes in question are not even recognized by the federal government as officially designated Indian tribes. In all of this long sob story you'd think that there would have been room to interview at least one store owner who had lost most of his business to these illegal operators. That apparently wasn't news that was fit to print.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Toward a Healthier Food Policy

All of the furor over the Department of Health's trans fat and menu labeling initiatives tends to obscure the underlying philosophical issue: Is the use of government edicts the best possible approach to the undeniable epidemic of obesity? In our opinion it is not.

For instance, government has required nutritional information on all food packaging for at least thirty years, with no discernible effect on the eating patterns of those low income communities that are clearly the concern of policy makers. At the same time, middle and upper income Americans have been willing conscripts in a veritable health revolution.

As Greg Beato's rant in the latest Reason magazine points out, "While it is easy to get fat in a world where $10 can buy you approximately five pounds of burritos at Taco Bell, it is also never easier to get thin." With fitness networks running 24/7 and "infomercial Adonises" pitching elliptical trainers, "you have an epidemic of fitness with no historical precedent."

All of which is underscored in the latest Department of Health statistics. Obesity is certainly much less of a concern in the city's wealthier environs than it is in the East Harlem or East New York (about half as bad in the Upper West Side versus Central Harlem for instance). But if we can create a health awareness in these areas, and the movement of a store like Whole Foods into the city is a good example of the recognition of a new demand curve, why not in the less affluent areas?

It is our view that the injection of government mandates do not tend to restructure anyone's mindset. We need to focus on the hearts and minds side of the equation, from which will follow the food industry's own restructuring of its marketing strategies. In fact, there is something unmistakably patronizing about this approach to low income communities (one that aggrandizes the power of the public health community at the expense of the will needed to promote change in lower income communities).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Restaurant Backlash

Monday's hearing on trans fat, since it was heavily weighted to all of the professional do-gooders who are paid to go to hearings and ponificate, seemed to settle the issue: trans fat is easily replaced and the replacement ingredients will have no impact on the taste of the food served. The only thing missing from Monday's menu was the restaurant owners themselves, who either couldn't wait for over an hour on the disgraceful line, or had to be in their restaurant supervising their meal preparation.

As a corrective, Newsday's Brian Virasami, went out to some of these owners and found, as one might expect, an entirely different worldview. As the owners told the paper the shortening issue is not easily remedied and, as Marci Levi of East Village Cajun said, :"the texture and taste of her desserts...simply aren't achievable without Crisco shortenings, and she vowed to put them in her cookies and cakes even if the city imposes the ban..." As Levi says, "This is not Communism, this is America. People have a choice on what to eat."

And the point that we have already made about the difficulty of transition is echoed by Modesto Hernandez of Queens Fried Chicken in Long Island City: If we have to use the vegetable or soy oils, that's too different...As a matter of fact, when I took over this place, I tried to put that oil in there. It tasted different and the people started to complain-we were losing business."

Hernandez also worries about the cost of the transition and others worry about the availability of alternatives. As Newsday underscores, these difficulties are precisely why the Alliance and the Latino Restaurant Association told the Health Department that there is a need for greater phase-in period to insure that the health of neighborhood restaurants will not be compromised.

Good Sense Not on the Menu

We haven't spent much time on the other Health Department proposal-the requirement that restaurants that are already posting calorie information post this information, in the same text size, right next to each menu listing. All of those who are in favor of this form of disclosure point to the fact that it will help address the obesity problem, particularly in low income neighborhoods where it has become epidemic.

One point that has not been made, however, is the fact that caloric information has been available on packaged food in supermarkets for the past thirty years!-and in all this time apparently the information has had little or no effect on those who overeat and become obese. Which is exactly the point that Lenore Skenazy makes today in her column in the Daily News.

Skenazy scoffs at the idea that the calorie info ("even on those already number-jumbled menu boards above the counter") will have any positive impact: "As if this will do any good, other than budding anorexics." The point she's making is a clear one-the folks going to McDonalds, just like those that are going to Le Cirq, are not going "for spa food."

Skenazy goes on to make a point that no one else has made: the posting of this kind of caloric information will only increase the kind of obsessional behavior around eating that has led to the other food epidemic-anorexia and bulimia. Don't take her word on this, the opinion comes from Dr. Harry Brandt, the former director of the eating disorders program at the National Institutes of Health.

AS Dr. Brandt indicates, "The more people calculate and fret, the weirder their eating habits become. Some binge, some starve." The idea here is that eating in this country has become about a lot more than satisfying one's hunger.

Which points to the fact that the way to address eating disorders of all kinds lies more with the underlying psycho-social issues around food, and no amount of posted calorie information will change this an iota. We need to work on this "hearts and minds" side of the equation-what the economists call the demand side. The creation of a more overarching regulatory environment is not the correct approach, and is doomed to be an expensive failure.