Saturday, February 02, 2008

Spectator on Green Carts

This week's hearing on "green carts" gets a comprehensive look from the Columbia Spectator. As the paper reports: "At an over three-hour-long City Council hearing on the bill Thursday, members of the Committee for Consumer Affairs proved the matter was more complicated than apples and oranges. While public health experts and grocery proprietors laud the bill for its efforts to help combat Harlem’s health problems, the hearing met with a chorus of aggravated small business owners and street vendors outside City Hall who censure the plan as unreasonable."

As the article highlights, the disagreement over the bill's merits lies with differing definitions of causation. For the proponents of Intro 665, it's all about the lack of access to fresh produce; while opponents of the bill highlight income and education-and cite the plentiful produce options in many of the targeted neighborhoods.

Which gets us to the heart of the opposition arguments. The city advances a proposal without doing any empirical analysis of the existing store locations-instead it grounds this legislation on articles of faith surrounding the "food deserts" that exist in certain neighborhoods.

Some of this emerges in the Spectator's lede: "Lilliam Lara assembles piles of fresh produce behind the counter at Stephanie Grocery at 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Her daughter, after whom the store is named, stands at the cashier, surrounded by a colorful array of tomatoes, avocados, bananas, and grapes, as well as the usual hodgepodge of chips, cans of Coca-Cola, and six-packs of beer.Lara, one of over 400 Harlem bodega owners, said nutritional options in Upper Manhattan are lacking, despite her efforts to bring them to the neighborhood. “In this area they forget about health,” she said in Spanish. “Many people suffer.”

What does this mean? Let's deconstruct. Here's one of those bodegas, you know the ones that don't carry any healthy stuff, and the owner-a Hispanic woman no less-is providing the kind of array of fresh produce that all of us would envy. Yet she says, "In this area, they forget about health..." The lede, then is somewhat misleading-implying that people are suffering from a lack of access, when Lilliam Lara is saying that it is the community that "forgets" about health, and "many people suffer." She's emphasizing the lack of demand here, and she's right.

As Sunny Kim says in the story: That’s BS,” Sunny Kim said. “If they want to improve their nutrition, they can go to nearby supermarkets. There are fruits and vegetables all over New York City.” Councilman Felder echoes this sentiment: "Some council members questioned whether areas where people do not eat nutritionally are without stores that sell fruits and vegetables. “We know people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables, but we don’t know if there’s a problem with availability,” city council member Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) said."

Interestingly, one of the bill's proponents underscored one of our key points about the income variable: “Most anyone in the field is acknowledging that we have a toxic environment for obesity and that we have to look everywhere we can for healthier choices,” said Dr. Sharon Akabas of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Higher rates of obesity correspond to lower socioeconomic levels, and often the task of affording healthy foods can create the largest hurdle, she said."

The task here is to utilize the existing store network to improve both access and affordability: "Kim and Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist who represents the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, suggested alternatives to what they called “pushcarts” and “peddlers” incentives and bonuses for small grocers to stock healthier options and reduced fees for outdoor “stoop permits.”

The WIC voucher program is also an excellent way to stimulate demand, Perhaps, just as we are initiating an "economic stimulus" program in Washington, we need to institute a "healthy eating" stimulus program that incentivizes healthier food choices. The WIC changes are, then, only a good modest beginning.

All of which means that Intro 665, as it is currently drafted, is not the answer to the city's "toxic obesity environment." A better bill needs to emerge, one that recognizes the positive role that the existing network of bodegas, green grocers, and supermarkets already play in providing New Yorkers access to the food they both want and need. And in doing so, we can't ignore the demand side of the equation-and the education needed to change life styles and behavior.