Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supermarket Gap

We've been writing for a while on the issue of access to healthy food and the threat of declining supermarkets in New York City; there is a great deal of truth in the observation that supermarkets are diasappearing in some neighborhoods of the city-there's also a good deal of mystification and ideological posturing.

Gail Robinson's article in the Gotham Gazette three years ago is representative: "While the city offers an amazing cornucopia of food – gourmet treats, heirloom produce, food prepared to every religious specification and ethnic taste – some poor neighborhoods lack even a simple medium-sized grocery store. This forces residents to contend with high prices and the unhealthy food. That, in turn, contributes to soaring rates of diabetes and obesity."

Some of this was on display in a Washington Post story yesterday. The problem with Robin Shulman's piece, and we spent some time discussing it with her a few months back, is that she avoids nuance, and uses the presumptions in the Gazette story as an inappropriate starting point: "Some poor neighborhoods in central Brooklyn or the Bronx that have lacked a good supermarket for decades have the lowest rates in the city of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the highest rates of diabetes and obesity -- a trend that has been found in inner cities across the country."

Shulman begins with the loss of a Myrtyle Avenue Associated, torn down to build a mixed use complex. Until the new construction began the neighborhood had a convenient local gocery store-as many neighborhoods do. Myrtle Avenue, then, doesn't reflect the underlying advocate-driven premise that has characterized so much of the discussion of this issue.

Shulman, to her credit, recognizes this: "There had been an Associated Supermarket across Myrtle Avenue from her housing project, but it was recently demolished to make way for a condominium development." Myrtle Avenue is an example of the loss of supermarkets resulting from gentrification; this is separate and distinct from the "supermarket gap" issue for low income neighborhoods.

What's needed, and the city has began the task of addressing the issue, is for our elected officials to develop a data base of local stores-supermarkets and green grocers in particular. Secondly, even before any plan to subsidize the building of new stores is started up, a policy of retention needs to be formulated-since the loss of supermarkets is becoming severe.

On this issue the Wapo story is right on target: "Today there are one-third fewer supermarkets in New York's five boroughs than there were six years ago, said Lawrence Sarf, the president of F&D Reports, a retail consulting company." What we'll see here is that the loss is directly related to high rents and the influx of banks and drug store chains. On review, we believe that the data will now show that there are, for instance, more supermarkets in East Harlem than there are in a comparable area of the Upper East Side.

This does not mean, however, that there's no need for larger and more modern markets-in East Harlem and elsewhere in the city's low income neighborhoods. It does mean that we need to be more precise-and to recognize that the local Key Food or Associated owner has made an investment in the neighborhood when no one else would. These entrepreneurs should be given ample opportunity if the city is looking to expand supermarkets in these communities.

The Wapo story, however, can mislead because there is no distinction made between a local 10,000 sq. ft. Key Food and a 65,000 sq. ft. Shoprite. So we get: "Alicia Glen, the managing director of the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, brings investment capital to underserved neighborhoods to stimulate economic development, including grocery stores. She said it is difficult to convince national supermarket chains "that even though people's incomes may be low, they still shop." "I think you could characterize it as redlining," she said. "There's a real sense that there's certain places they won't go."

This provocative characterization obfuscates the fact that these are neighborhoods with narrow commercial strips, area that can't easily accomodate larger suburban supermarket models. Contrary to the redlining canard, these areas have been the beneficiaries of substantial investment by local entrpreneurs and food wholesalers. More, however needs to be done to insure that these stores are able to both survive and prosper.

And the comments by Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs are good ones: "As we do new housing developments, we should think about how to structure space on the ground floor" and "make plans to incorporate street-level retail," said Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services." Anyone who goes up Third Avenue in East Harlem will see exacly what Gibbs is talking about-block after block of housing projects with no accompanying retail services.

The city needs to act now, before the loss turns into a stampede. The rising tide of rents won't lift all the retail boats. As supermarket exec John Catsimatidis told the Post: "Unless you come up with some solution for essential services, you're going to have neighborhoods change dramatically," said John Catsimatidis, chief executive of the Gristedes chain, which has recently closed outlets because of rent hikes. "Traditionally people went to their neighborhood stores to buy their needs," he said. "They won't be able to do that. It's not just grocery stores."