Monday, March 03, 2008

Fruity Logic Prevails Once Again at the Times

It is getting to be somewhat like a catechism with the Times. Take any issue that could impact on the health of neighborhood business and the paper can be guaranteed to support the position that is most antithetical to the interests of small and minority business. On Saturday the shameful tradition continued with the Times editorializing in favor of the green carts legislation.

When the Times sets out on this path two things generally happen: the first is to disparage local retailers; the second, because the editors simply have no clue about anything that's occurring outside of their insulated island, is the complete misrepresentation of the reality of the city's neighborhood shopping areas. To wit: "Health experts have taken to calling low-income neighborhoods “food deserts,” and it is easy to see why. Supermarkets are usually in short supply and specialty produce and health-food stores are even rarer. Residents are often forced to do their food shopping in small grocery stores that carry few fresh fruits and vegetables."

"Health experts?" Now there's an interesting turn of phrase. You see a health expert is in no way a retail food expert, and to conflate the two is to obfuscate neighborhood realities-in the interest of the patronizing elites who, like Lawrence of Arabia, want to see the natives bring a bloom to their deserts.

The neighborhood realities, however, are more complex-and the Times is replaying its phony-"Where Supermarkets are Never Super"-headlines that did so much to drive the megastore proposal in the Giuliani mayoralty that was eventually defeated by council members who knew a great deal more about what was going on in the city than the salons at the NY Times.

As we've been pointing out there are 900 local supermarkets in the city and over 2,000 green grocers (a fact that the paper reported but the editors must have missed); and many of these businesses are in the neighborhoods targeted by the green carts bill. Unfortunately, since their driven by an ideology untainted by data, the Times doesn't recognize this so it can't address the issue of unfair competition, or the faulty "retail desert" premise behind the legislation (a premise that was swallowed whole by the gullible folks down at the paper).

This is, after all, the paper that told us a couple of years ago that the bodega was a vanishing institution in the city's low income communities-something that the 13,000 minority entrepreneurs would have been surprised to find out if they had actually had the time or inclination to read this bit of sharp investigative journalism. The good folks over at Jetro Cash & Carry would have been surprised as well, since this rapidly expanding company, with five warehouses in New York City, has built a profitable business supplying bodegas and independent restaurants.

So we're left with the editorial blinders that have come to signify what the Times offers to its elite and dwindling Manhattan readership. Last Friday, as we drove down Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, we counted fifteen fruit and vegetable outlets. Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park has at least five along a mile stretch-along with four neighborhood supermarkets. Graham Avenue's the same in Williamsburg; and the city wants to close La Marqueta on Moore Street-a large purveyor of fresh produce that was built to take peddlers off of the street (talk about dissonance!).

Then we get to the demand side of the equation that the Times obliquely highlights in its confusion: "There are already about 4,000 so-called green carts, but they rarely venture far from the tonier — and healthier — neighborhoods. The new initiative will put green carts on the sidewalks of the poorest areas, which are home to a disproportionate share of roughly half of the city’s residents who are overweight."

What's stopping the 4,000 street peddlers from going into the food deserts? Perhaps Gail Collins or Eleanor Randolf or Brent Staples-Times editors all- will take up a cart and head out into Bushwick and East New York in order to supplement their meager incomes. Go ahead make our day and prove us wrong guys. The one caveat here, however, is that you have to set up your cart in an area where there are no existing produce outlet.

The Times does give a modest nod to the demand question: "The city could help even more by publicizing the green carts in their new neighborhoods, reminding residents of the benefits of a healthy diet, and handing out recipes for cooking with fresh produce." Of course, given the fact that the paper is clueless about the actual retail environment, it fails to exhort our good leaders to use this kind of social marketing to drive demand at the neighborhood stores that are in the business of supplying communities with produce; stores that are providing employment for thousands of immigrants and sustaining the quality of life in city neighborhoods.

So what we're left with out of all of this pernicious myopia is the failure to accurately understand what New York City's food policy needs actually are-especially as gentrification is driving away local supermarkets, and high taxes and over-regulation is making it difficult for the small green grocer to survive or possibly even thrive.

We're not totally disheartened here. There are folks in city government who apparently do get it. The development of a healthy food policy is going to need to have the input of the real experts-the retailers and their suppliers who actually know about the prevailing climate in the neighborhoods of the city. What's painfully clear, however, is that the NY Times editors will be of little help given the clueless state in which they operate.