Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Vendor Bill: Bad Idea Based on a False Premise

This morning's Crain's Insider is reporting on our press conference on Intro 665 scheduled for Thursday at 12:30. As we told the newsletter the struggle won't be easy: “The mayor and speaker have jumped on board, and [the press conference]becomes a difficult sell, even for the
people who feel the bill doesn’t make sense,” Lipsky says." The difficulties, notwithstanding, the bill doesn't make much sense even from the perspective of its most fervent proponents.

If the bill's purpose is to provide access to fresh produce for communities that lack availability, then the city needed to first conduct a comprehensive survey of the communities in question in order to identify where the outlets for fresh produce were located. Instead, using survey data from the Department of Health that found that residents of certain neighborhoods consume less produce than is optimal, the bill's drafters-assuming without proof that the low consumption was the independent variable in determining this low consumption-broadly targeted 43 police precincts for 1500 newly licensed peddlers to flood.

Here are the targeted precincts: Bronx: Police Precincts 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52;
(ii) Brooklyn: Police Precincts 63, 66, 67, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 90, 94;
(iii) Manhattan: Police Precincts 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 32, 33, 34;
(iv) Queens: Police Precincts 100, 101, 102, 103, 105, 106, 113; and
(v) Staten Island: Police Precinct 120."

Well it turns out that in many, if not most of these precincts, there are scores of fresh produce outlets operating on busy commercial streets. On Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, to take one example, there are nine outlets. Here's the breakdown: 1) 4 major supermarkets with fresh fruit & vegetable depts located on 5th Avenue-Key Food, C-Town, Associated and Met Food.
2. 2 fruit & vegetable stands - 49th Street & 5th Ave, 60th Street & 5th Avenue
3. 3 new smaller fruit stores - one in the 60's and 2 in the 40's, on 5th Avenue.

Ironically, the city also located a large greenmarket in the Sunset Park area, a market that was relocated after the community objected to its original location right on the Fifth Avenue corridor. As the NY Times reported the story: "Greenmarket, the organization that operates the city's 27 markets, has proposed one for a part of Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. Community Board 7, which covers Sunset Park, rejected the proposal at its May 16 meeting, saying that the area was already too congested with grocery stores and other businesses."

The Greenmarket folks, just like the DOH experts, have no idea about what's happening in the neighborhoods-relying instead on cooked up data that masks certain ideological assumptions about the local food business. It is much easier to attack the deficiencies of local stores, than it is to tackle the root causes of the health problems that the advocates are striving to solve.

The reality here is that there are thousands of produce outlets within Intro 665 targeted areas. Peddlers with their new $50 a year licenses will not be heading to the hills, so to speak, but will make right for the busy commercial streets; and just like in Manhattan, will set up shop right in front of existing supermarkets and produce stores.

So the access issue will remain unaddressed, if in fact it has any validity in the first place. What the city needs to do, if it believes its own assumptions about access, is to identify specific locations and grant peddling permits for these specific locations. Our suspicion, however, is that the city is in an Emperor's No Clothes position, and is unwilling to empirically test the proposition that underlies Intro 665; fearing that the access assumption is overblown and/or meaningless.

If, as we suspect, the access issue is a false premise than the plan to flood these 43 police precincts is a bad idea. We don't believe, however, that the DOH survey is totally bogus. People aren't eating as healthy as they should. But once we remove access from the equation we are left with needing to determine what underlies the poor dietary choices people are making.