Thursday, February 28, 2008

Times Cart Focus: Right on the Money

In this morning's NY Times the paper, in writing on the city council passage of Intro 665, rightly focuses on the bill's potential impact on neighbor hood stores with the headline blaring: "Council Vote for Good Health May Weaken Business at Groceries in Poor Neighborhoods." The Times goes on to describe how the changes in the bill reducing its possible harm to local economies emerged because of, "...intense lobbying from independent supermarkets, bodegas and greengrocers who said the bill would steal their customers without increasing demand for fresh produce."

The key point raised here, and the one that bill supporter Oliver Koppell underscored, is how the targeting of certain neighborhoods was done without examining the extent to which shopping areas in these communities where creating availability of fresh produce for neighborhood residents: "Mr. Koppell, one of the bill’s original sponsors, expressed the concerns of many council members when they learned that neighborhoods were targeted based on consumption rather than supply. Put simply, neighborhoods where more than 15 percent of residents said they had not eaten fruits or vegetables in the last 24 hours made the list, regardless of how many area stores offered fresh produce."

This was the key selling point that the opposition was able to raise that undermined the initial knee-jerk feel good support that the bill originally generated: "The measure had the backing of antihunger and child-advocacy groups, and when it was introduced it appeared to have strong support on the Council. But support began to waver amid heavy lobbying from the retail food industry, leading to a flurry of late changes and compromises."

This key flaw is described clearly by Sung Soo Kim who heads the Korean-American Small Business Service Center: “It’s the execution that’s wrong,” he said. He and other industry advocates said the city should identify neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables were not available before deciding where to place vendors."

So the challenge now is to do the hard work of analyzing the neighborhood retail environment, something that Commissioner Frieden admits is harder to do: "Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, said that consumption data was used because it was reliable and available. Compiling reliable data on retailers that sell a proper variety of quality fruits and vegetables, at affordable prices, was much more complex, he said."

Much more complex? Perhaps so, but in any public policy measure the aim should be to craft legislation that properly correlates with its stated aims. By eschewing the hard work here, the city literally put the carts before the horse.

Which brings us to the lobbying issue raised by Quinn spokesman Jamie McShane in the Daily Politics blog yesterday: "...the special interests don't go that hard against you if you're not doing the right thing. Today we stood up for New Yorkers who are often forgotten and can't afford to hire a lobbyist to represent them." This is pure spin.

The fat of the matter here is that small stores impacted by Intro 665 are not some high powered, well-financed lobby, and the bill was drafted without their input and with no regard for their well-being. McShane-and the speaker- should realize that these stores contribute immensely to the city's economy and provide a significant bootstrap to new immigrants. To try to paint their opposition here as a frontal assault of the deadly "special interests" does the city council no favor as we go forward in trying to develop a good food policy.