Monday, February 25, 2008

Korean Cart Attack

In yesterday's NY Times City Section, the paper focuses on the growing Korean opposition to Intro 665-the Green Carts bill. The bill has thrown city hall into a larger turmoil than anyone could have predicted, owing to the haste and lack of due diligence that went into the crafting of the bill, and the failure of the sponsors to even consult or consider the impact that the measure would have on local stores. As we said in the paper: "Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for small retailers, said the proposal, known as the Green Carts bill, would “cannibalize existing business.”

As this is being written, As Kirstin Danis highlights in yesterday's NY Daily News, the bill is undergoing a considerable makeover; a revision process that reflects concerns that were brought up by our lobbying effort, and the need to win over recalcitrant council members who had balked at the bill's original provisions. As Danis points out: "Not everyone likes to eat vegetables, but the City Council doesn't even want to vote for them.Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the city Health Department are working furiously to salvage a proposal that seemed like a slam-dunk when it was announced by Mayor Bloomberg and Quinn in December: putting street vendors in poor neighborhoods to sell fruits and vegetables."

In all likelihood, the revised bill will be brought to a vote this Wednesday, but the process has been unnecessarily arduous because greater care wasn't given to examining the merits as well as the impact of the legislation: "Privately, Council members complain the city didn't do its homework. Advocates assumed people don't eat vegetables because they can't get them. While that may be broadly true, the lack of block-by-block specifics gave Council members little ammo against a food industry that claims vendors will set up right outside established markets."

And while we are pleased with the concerned response of many council members we're kinda bemused by Danis' observation on the power of the "grocery lobby:" "The grocery lobby went nuts, and term-limited Council members got nervous about angering a richly financed opposition just as so many of them are angling for new jobs." This is quite an overstatement in our view. The reality is that the bill was poorly thought out, which made the case against it fairly easy to make.

What the controversy underscores, however, is the need to have a much greater degree of industry and labor collaboration before legislation is drafted that impacts the viability of neighborhood stores. The city appears ready to embrace this idea in the form of a supermarket commission that has been promoted even prior to this green cart fight by Ben Thomasses, the city's food policy coordinator.

The commission or task force, we're not sure what the final nomenclature will be, needs to be inclusive as well as diverse; and should be made to include all neighborhood food retailers not only supermarkets-particularly the Korean green grocers who have been so offended by the substance and process involved in the promotion of Intro 665.

Some of this is reflected in the Times piece: “This bill is totally unnecessary,” Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean-American Small Business Service Center of New York, told a half-dozen reporters for Korean-American news outlets at a news conference on Thursday. He added: “There is plenty of access to produce. Why should we worry about access?”

This belief is central to the disagreement over the issue of access to fresh produce. Here's the health commissioner's view: "According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, the city is trying to encourage store owners to sell more produce, but many merchants have found that alcohol and cigarettes have higher profit margins. Noting that there were “very few greengrocers at all” in the proposed police precincts, Dr. Frieden said, “The carts might actually have a salutary effect on competition in these areas.”

Besides the fact that Frieden conflates green grocers with bodegas, his comments elide the fact that the areas that are designated in the bill are expansive-with neighborhoods that have a full complement of stores and those that don't. The Korean rejoinder is instructive: "Kangchul Park, director of the Korean Produce Association, acknowledged that few Korean grocers were in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, two areas that would be affected by the legislation. But he predicted that licensed vendors would stray into forbidden areas with a higher demand for fruit. “Eventually,” Mr. Park said, “they’ll find out the reason why there are no grocery stores where they are. And sooner or later, they’ll be tempted to move to where there are other grocery stores.”

The reality is that in the past three decades the 2,000 plus green grocers the arose in the city revolutionized the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods that had never seen them. If there are neighborhoods where they have yet to venture, than the odds are that those are areas where demand doesn't exist-and if Intro 665 had simply targeted these "food deserts" by the use of census track data rather than use police precincts as demarcation points, much of the uproar might well have been avoided. Danis observation is right on point:
"Advocates assumed people don't eat vegetables because they can't get them. While that may be broadly true, the lack of block-by-block specifics gave Council members little ammo against a food industry that claims vendors will set up right outside established markets."

As it stands now, we believe that the Danis point is the likelihood and that Mr. Park is probably correct. The desert neighborhoods in the designated access areas will likely be by-passed in favor of peddler saturation of shopping strips where the stores that sell produce already are located; an eventuality that would defeat the intent of the legislation.

The lesson is clear: city government needs to move quickly to create a climate of collaboration with all local business on the issue of access to healthy food. The locus of policy making needs to shift away from the department of health-an agency that appears to operate, not only with a callous disregard for the well-being of food retailers, but in an information vacuum as well when it comes to the importance of the local economies of the city's neighborhoods.

If we are going to have a successful food policy going forward, then the policy making process must begin with the input of those retailers, food wholesalers and the men and women who work in these outlets. Any other method is truly self-defeating, and literally puts the carts before the horse.