Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Supply Cart Before the Demand Horse

The Mayor and the Speaker announced yesterday the introduction of legislation that would license an additional 1500 fruit and vegetable vendors in so-called underserved areas. As the mayor's press release states: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Speaker Christine C. Quinn today proposed legislation that would increase the number of food carts that sell fresh fruits and vegetables only. The carts will be located in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs where access to fresh fruit and vegetables is limited."

This is, as we said when interviewed today on Bloomberg radio, a bad idea built on a false premise. Despite what the mayor said today, "Access to healthy foods varies widely throughout New York City, and in many lower-income neighborhoods, supermarkets are few and far between. There is demand for fruits and vegetables in these neighborhoods, and this regulatory change will enable the market to meet that demand," said Mayor Bloomberg," all neighborhoods of the city do have supermarkets that sell these fresh food items.

The focus on the bodega, however, creates the false impression of a fresh food desert. Bodegas are convenience stores, and while they should be encouraged to sell more fruit and vegetables, this effort, which we have supported wholeheartedly, contributes to the false hypothesis-it's little more than a urban myth.

In addition, the proliferation of these vendors has the potential to not only compete on an unlevel playing field with tax paying stores, it also can become a health hazard in and of itself. As we have seen with vendor enforcement in Manhattan, the entire concept is an oxymoron. Who exactly is going to enforce the health and safety rules when the thermometer climbs in the summer and produce carts are sitting unairconditioned in the streets of the South Bronx and Harlem?

And who's going to examine the status and working conditions of those folks manning the carts? We have seen how many of these carts are being operated by employees, with few benefits if any, and abysmal working conditions. It all has the potential for chaos.

And for what? The other false premise here is that there's a pent-up demand for these healthier offerings, a demand that's being obstructed by stupid store owners, businesspeople who have no concern for the health of their customers. As the mayor told NY1: "The Green Cart legislation has the potential to deliver a product into the market that people want, while also improving the health of an estimated 100,000 New Yorkers,” said Bloomberg. “Over the long term this could save about a hundred lives a year.”

Really? Where's the evidence of this? In neighborhoods where the demographics are changing we can witness the gentrification of the bodegas, and the stocking of healthier products. Stores adapt to the new customer demand; and supply the new products that the newly arrived are clamoring for.

In the absence of the demand this is all a very intrusive experiment, one that will take away from the city's meritorious efforts to get bodegas to be "healthier." As we told the NY Sun: "A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, Richard Lipsky, a critic of the plan, said the proposal doesn't take into account a lack of demand for fresh produce in parts of the city. The produce carts would be in competition with stores he represents. "It's putting the supply cart before the demand horse," Mr. Lipsky said. "If you don't generate the demand, putting more sources of access out there will not address the problem."


The NY Daily News and the NY Post also covered the "green cart" legislation, with both papers citing our skeptical observations. Here's the News citation: "Efforts to get bodegas to carry low-fat milk have been successful, but the corner stores aren't as good at stocking fruits and vegetables, officials said. Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who represents bodegas, said that's because customers aren't buying the heart-healthy food. "The real problem is the lack of demand," he said. "If the demand was high, the stores would be well-stocked."