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.