Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Disappearing Supermarkets

By now it has become clear that the city has a genuine public health concern with the foods that are/or are not available to folks in certain New York neighborhoods. The DOH menu labeling regulation is designed precisely in order to get the people in neighborhoods where fast food outlets proliferate to change their unhealthy eating patterns.

In similar fashion, the "green carts" legislation is designed to get fresh fruits and veggies to communities that supposedly lack access to these healthier food items. Underlying both of these public health initiatives is the belief that the city needs to take dramatic action in order to stem the tide of what it sees as an obesity epidemic, one that creates a wide range of health-related problems.

In the discussion of these health/food issues all involved seem to agree on one thing: the existence of good modern supermarkets is a key ingredient in counteracting the unhealthy trends we've been discussing. And yet, the city is still sitting by and watching as these markets disappear. At the same time, in spite of some hoopla over a supermarket initiative, the current administration has yet to get moving on a policy that would incentivize the building of new markets in neighborhoods that have been targeted as lacking the access to healthier foods.

Instead, all of the attention has been given to introducing peddlers onto the streets of the underserved neighborhoods. In fact, in the press conference on the green carts legislation the supermarket policy initiative that was introduced coterminously was drowned out by the noise around peddling. This has to be reversed; attention needs to be given right away to reversing the trend that has seen supermarkets disappearing, not only from Manhattan, but from every neighborhood of the city-as banks and drug stores paying exhorbitant rents rapidly replace the markets.

Which brings us to an immediate crisis. In one of the city's targeted green carts precincts in the South Bronx, a Key Food supermarket that has been a neighborhood fixture on Bruckner Boulevard for three decades is threatened with extinction because of rising rents and landlord avarice. Here's a store that serves over 850,000 customers a year and sells over $2,300,000 worth of fresh produce-in a neighborhood that the city believes lacks access to fruits and vegetables.

Something needs to be done here-and this neighborhood is not alone. When we met with Councilman Comrie on the green carts legislation he told us that his community had lost four neighborhood supermarkets, stores that had been doing quite well but that couldn't compete with outlets paying hitherto unheard of rents. In Bay Ridge, another Key Food may be lost to the metastesizing drug store phenomenon.

Put simply, the city cannot continue to put the push cart before the supermarket horse. Immediate action is needed, and Bruckner Boulvevard is the right place to start. It's a public health crisis in the making.