Monday, November 12, 2007

Food Co-optation

There's an interesting story on a new Bronx food co-op in yesterday's NY Times. The story highlights some of the on-going discussions about the importance-and availability-of fresh fruit and vegetables in the city's low income neighborhoods.

Here are the comments of Zena Nelson, the founder of the food venture: "Ms. Nelson had noticed, with some annoyance, the success of large marketers, like Whole Foods Market, in selling organic foods to an affluent clientele. “Why is it that people with higher incomes were able to buy better food at lower prices,” she exclaimed, “but people with lower incomes were buying worse food at higher prices? This is stupid!” We're really not sure just what world Ms. Nelson's living in, but we're quite sure that her understanding of marketing and the economics of food distribution and retailing needs bolstering.

First of all, Whole Foods ain't discounting to anyone, and the chain's price structure would insure that any store it opened up in a low income area would be doomed to failure-on price alone. Secondly, in spite of Ms. Nelson's belief that there's a huge market for good organic produce in these neighborhoods (“Some people say poor people are not going to buy organic,” she said. “But many poor people are from Africa or the Caribbean or Latin America. Most of their grandparents grew up on farms."), the fact remains that for whatever reason the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables of all kinds is low in these areas, a fact that will make the products both scarce as well as expensive.

The key, as always in our economic system, rests with generating the kind of demand that will eventually lead to the availability of good produce at reasonable prices. This is something that we don't hear any discussion of in the NY Times, a paper that hasn't done a single, non-demonizing, article on the economics of food retailing in low income areas in the past twenty years. All we hear about is the lack, the insufficiency, and the poor quality of the stores-both bodegas and supermarkets-in low-income neighborhoods.

So instead of focusing on the realities of the market-and, yes, the amazing economic success stories involving a whole class of immigrant entrepreneurs-we get a new age romanticizing of a non-capitalist business. Why not focus on how to use the existing distribution network to increase both the supply of, and demand for, fresh produce? Now that would be a positive kind of immigrant story, and we're left to wonder why the Times hasn't understood to do it.