Friday, February 01, 2008

Sliced and Diced

In yesterday's City Council hearing on Intro 665 a strange thing happened. For one of the first times in a very long while we really didn't feel that we needed to testify-certainly not after council members sliced and diced Health Commissioner Frieden. As the NY Daily News reports today (strangely no link): "Cynics Jam Wheels of 'Green Carts' Proposal."

Skepticism over the city proposal dominated the questioning of the commissioner. The strongest reservation surrounded the perceived lack of due diligence behind the bill, with Council members Liu, Martinez and Felder expressing concern over the commissioner's lack of awareness of where the stores selling fresh produce are located.

Here the sentiment in favor of supporting local businesses that sell produce was very strong. "'It's going to cause harm,' said Councilman Miguel Marinez..." Liu, perhaps the strongest skeptic, "questioned whether 'this green cart legislation actually makes sense.'"

What struck us was the failure of the commissioner to reference the city's 1400 green grocers in his two hours of testimony. This failure reflected a lack of knowledge of the neighborhood food business. Council members honed in on this, and questioned the wisdom of broadly targeting police precincts for carts.

In addition, Liu in particular questioned the bill's rationale in regard to the exising demand for produce. He referenced our inability to be "food police," and said that he didn't think that simply adding more outlets would increase the demand for fresh fruits and veggies. Rather, he felt that it would be a zero-sum game with the peddlers cannibalizing current food sales. Felder strongly reiterated this point.

There was also extreme sketicism surrounding the enforcement issue. The commissioiner vowed strict enforcement, but Council member Monserrate pointed out that enforcement is weak or non-existent for the current complement of vendors-particularly in Manhattan where supermarket owners have been complaining for years about vendors stealing sales while operating against the supposed regulations-a point that was echoed by Avi Kaner of MortonWilliams Associated stores.

Perhaps the strongest criticsm was directed at both Frieden and Food Policy Coordinator Ben Thomasses, when the two men suggested that the opposition was being driven by, "a fear of competition." Martinez ridiculed the idea by pointing out that giving someone a $50 permit to compete with a store paying high rents taxes and utilities was not fair competition at all.

So it looks as if there is a great deal of work that the administration needs to do before this bill becomes law. Location and enforcement remain two key issues, but we agree with Sung Soo Kim who was eloquent on behalf of his green grocers: there is a need for a moratorium here. A mapping of store locations, along with identifying areas of access deficiency, and the convening of the planned Food Policy Task Force/Supermarket Initiative, needs to be done before embarking on the peddler parade.