Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Supermarket Sayonara

As the NY Daily News reported yesterday, and as we've been saying for a while, the city is hemorrhaging supermarkets in almost every neighborhood. The News account concerns a Department of City Planning report (not yet available online) that finds: "A study discussed yesterday by the Planning Commission determined that virtually every neighborhood throughout the city lacks enough supermarkets, and the ones that exist are generally too small. That means that city shoppers flock to the suburbs to do much of their supermarket shopping, and the number of supermarkets is shrinking even as the city's population is growing."

What this means is that a comprehensive retention and promotion program for supermarkets is essential in order to meet the health and economic needs of the city's neighborhoods. The situation's so bad that many of the minority supermarket owners (around sixty according to our sources) have opened stores in North Carolina, Connecticut and Florida-an indication of how the cost of real estate is affecting both large and small food retailers.

The DCP study highlights the health issues that underlie this crisis: "Commenting on the study by her staff, Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden noted that the lack of supermarkets is most severe in areas of the city with high rates of obesity and diabetes. The study noted that diet-related diseases can be aggravated by the lack of availability to fresh fruits and vegetables." Which is why we have been saying that veggie peddlers are no substitute for good modern supermarkets.

An even more in-depth look at this market drain can be seen in the latest issue of City Limits. The magazine focuses on the city and state's efforts to emulate the Pennsylvania Supermarket Initiative: "Agriculture officials said they’re hoping to establish a program to boost supermarket development in underserved communities, basing the effort on a Pennsylvania program – the $120 million Fresh Food Financing Initiative – that’s been on the books since 2004. Widely considered a national model, Pennsylvania’s program has already helped to renovate or build 50 food stores statewide, all in underserved areas, since its inception."

The key here is to amalgamate various funding sources to make new market development not only feasible to the developer, but feasible in the ability of the market operator to offer food at prices deemed reasonable for the targeted neighborhood: "The Penn program encourages supermarket development by coordinating an array of funding sources, including the New Markets Tax Credit, private foundation grants, and municipal and state development funding. To receive funding assistance, stores must be located in low- or moderate-income census tracts; provide a full selection of fresh foods; and be located in areas where fresh food is lacking."

According to existing data cited by City Limits, the city has lost about 1/3 of its existing supermarkets. As we've remarked before, the loss can be attributed to rising rents: "In New York, the project is still in early discussion stages. Nonetheless, the effort could find a welcoming home here. City residents have lost one-third of their supermarkets in recent years, dropping from 1,312 in 2002 to 877 in 2008, according to a market analysis done by F&D Reports, a research group focused on food retail and distribution. That loss, said F&D’s Larry Sarf, is due to one thing: Skyrocketing rents."

City Limits also underscores the crucial health issue: "Losing markets can be more than just an inconvenience—it might well worsen residents' health. For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent, according to an American Journal of Public Health study from 2002." The corollary question here is, what kind of health impact results from the loss of a large supermarket in a community that is determined to be lacking in decent access to things like fruits and vegetables?

All of this makes the decision of Vornado Realty and Distrust to evict a 30,000 sq. ft. Key Food from its location in Soundview all the more appalling. Soundview is precisely the kind of community that the DCP study is most concerned about. Vornado is simply not a good corporate citizen and we're planning-along with the 22,000 strong men and woman of Local 1500 of the UFCW- to inform the entire city about this until the mayor intercedes on behalf of the health of Bronxites.