Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Peddle to the Muddle

Intro 665 has been introduced at the City Council and the measure, which could add 1500 street vendors to the five boroughs, needs a great deal more work if it is going to make any public policy sense. As we have said before, "As far as false nostrums are concerned, the idea that the poor of the city are obese because they lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables ranks right up there; the problem is not availability but desirability-people must be educated so that demand is generated for the produce."

That being said, why is Intro 665, as it's currently drafted, such a bad idea? In the first place," the bill is based on the untested assumption that availability holds the key-with "lack of access" as the mantra of the advocates. If this were truly the case it would mean that policy should be directed at those areas where access is lacking. The Intro 665 appears to do just this, but appearances are deceiving.

The areas targeted are based on a Department of Health survey that found that only 12% of residents in certain communities "regularly consume" vegetables. This doesn't, however, tell us a thing about access. In addition, the bill's rationale is also built on the evaluation of the city's bodegas, and the fact that these convenience stores don't generally sell fresh fruit and vegetables.

This really amounts to somewhat of a non sequitor. Convenience stores don't generally sell this kind of produce. The second rationale is based on a finding that areas such as East Harlem have 30% fewer supermarkets than an upper income neighborhood like the East Side. This doesn't really tell us much, and it's certainly not any basis for spreading a peddler proliferation over the low income areas of the city.

Even in the bereft East Harlem there are at least 16 supermarkets, including a large Pathmark that was built after a great deal of controversy. The people of East Harlem, just like those in all of the comparable neighborhoods in the city, have plenty of access to fresh produce. But if you're really concerned by all of this, than the response should be more supermarkets, not peddlers who might well take away business from the store owners.

Which brings us back to Intro 665. The bill contains no geographical restrictions whatsoever. This means that a peddler could, and we would say will, set up his stand right in the front of stores that are selling fresh produce. What possible sense does this make? In addition, if you want more fruit stands, than store operators should be given first dibs on the spots in front of their businesses-not someone who will set up shop, for $50 bucks, in front of a supermarket and compete with the tax paying business.

As this Intro proceeds we will discuss some of the enforcement weaknesses in the legislation. Suffice it to say, that the bill would open up a Pandora's Box, with uninspected and unhealthy produce being peddled all in the name of healthier eating. And in the end, it's doubtful to us whether the expressed goals of reducing obesity would ever be properly addressed.