Tuesday, May 20, 2008

City Food Policy Must Move Quickly

In today's NY Daily News, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs outlines the city's efforts to address the public health crisis highlighted by the rising obesity and diabetes epidemics: "In spite of our success, we're still facing a public health crisis - but it stems more from poor nutrition than hunger. For example, obesity and diabetes are on the rise - particularly in low-income communities where access to fresh, healthy foods is limited. These diseases take a serious toll on individuals and families, as well as on our public health system, which is why Mayor Bloomberg has launched a coordinated campaign to improve access to fresh foods and to help New Yorkers understand the strong link between nutrition and overall health."

This is all much to the point, and we applaud the Bloombergistas recognition of the problem. And their focus on supermarkets is to be applauded considering the fact that so many markets have closed, as a recent City Planning report has underscored.

For instance, just yesterday we attended a rally in the North Bronx where local residents of Pelham Gardens rallied to keep their Met Food supermarket open. As NY1 reports: "A Bronx community is urging a landlord not to push out their supermarket to make way for a drug store chain. Council Member James Vacca says city records show Met Food in Pelham Gardens is in the process of being sold to Walgreens, who can pay higher rent. If the deal goes through, local residents say their area will be underserved by grocery stores."

And Councilman Vacca's right on point about the need for a city policy: "We want to keep people out of their cars, we want to give them access to fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Vacca. “This is citywide policy yet we have no policy to incentivize little supermarkets staying open. They can't compete against the big chain drug stores."

So Deputy Gibbs has a big job ahead. As she says: "We are looking at a variety of strategies to tackle the challenge, including using city-owned land for the development of new food markets and examining zoning in certain areas to ensure that we are not precluding the location of new food stores. In addition, the city's food coordinator will play a leadership role on the newly formed Supermarket Commission, a public/private partnership that will provide recommendations about how the city can get new supermarkets into neighborhoods."

And not a moment too soon, since the Bruckner Key Food is being pushed out and another Key Food in Bay Ridge will close in June. In addition, if NYU doesn't bargain in good faith, a Met Food on Second Avenue could soon become history.

So the city, as Gibbs tells us, feels that public health is a major priority: "Access to healthy foods is critical to the future health of all New Yorkers, and the Bloomberg administration will continue to play a leading role in advancing innovative new strategies that will make all five boroughs healthier places to live and raise families." If so, then it can't sit by while landlords evict supermarket tenants, and communities are stripped of vital food access.

We'll give the North Bronx's Met Food the final word here: “Sure, pain for ourselves as well,” said Met Food director of operations Fred Galella. “We've got a lot of senior citizens here and they've got some valid points, you know, they don't drive. There are drug stores everywhere.” And, if nothing is done, soon there will be more.