Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Council Go Carts

At today's stated City Council meeting it appears more than likely that Intro 665 will be passed in its amended form. The passage comes after council leadership was forced to significantly reduce the number of vendors as well as delimit the areas in which they will be allowed to operate. In addition, at least two vocal opponents of the bill found their police precincts exempted in exchange for their support for the green carts measure.

It is also apparent that the establishment of a review panel to evaluate the efficacy of the vendor initiative comes about as a result of the level of initial opposition that was raised: but its imperative that the panel be of a diverse make-up-with industry and labor participating in order to insure that a fair review is conducted. The Department of health, with no knowledge or concern for the food retailers, shouldn't be allowed to essentially mark its own exam.

Which brings us to the key issue of providing access to healthy foods-and the flawed manner in which the city has approached addressing it. The policy perspective must begin with the food wholesalers and their customers at the retail level-the supermarkets, green grocers and bodegas. With this in mind, it is essential that the locus of policy making be shifted from the DOH to the office of the food policy coordinator and EDC,

Improving access means improving the viability of the industry to deliver the goods in a cost-effective manner. It means examining those variables that increase the cost of doing business and looking for ways to overcome them through direct government policy changes. Primary here are the city's tax, regulatory and land use policies.

In this regard, it is important that the city create the kind of food policy task force that brings together the right kinds of expertise so that the resultant policy changes can be as effective as possible. On the small store level, the involvement of Jetro Cash-and-Carry is essential since the wholesaler supplies, and has intimate knowledge of the business challenges of all of the city's 13,000 bodegas-as well as of the vast majority of the independent restaurants that they supply from their Restaurant depot outlets. Jetro has already, unbeknownst to city policy makers, embarked on an ambitious program to entice bodegas to start shifting their business into healthier product lines.

It is also imperative that the city involve the independent supermarket owners who operate the Key Foods, C-Towns, Foodtowns Pioneers and Associated supermarkets. These are the neighborhood markets that are directly linked to those communities that have been targeted as underserved-markets that are being driven out by high rents and city tax and regulatory policies.

Finally, the city government needs to coordinate all of its housing and development efforts with an eye towards retaining and promoting supermarkets and other food stores; as part of a recognition that this is part of nurturing an essential city health service. This would mean that the effort to close the Moore Street Marqueta in Williamsburg would not go forward once it is recognized that the market is a major source of fresh produce for that underserved community.

So Intro 665 is a blip in the radar if the city actually begins to move aggressively forward on the development of a food policy initiative. The caveat here? Well, in the sixties when all of the civil disorders were cropping up it became commonplace for government to set up a commission. So common was this practice, and so ineffective, that one policy analyst actually wrote an article titled: "Let Them Eat Commissions." We need to avoid this trap and do much better.