Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bucking Good Sense

In this morning's NY Post, Jeff Stier has an excellent critique of the DOH "Healthy Bucks" program: "City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden apparently didn't notice the scandalous revelations about City Council "member items" earlier this year - at least, it hasn't stopped him from jumping feet first into his own no-accountability giveaway. His department is giving away 30,000 taxpayer-funded $2 coupons this month as part of its Health Bucks program - and says it may hand out "significantly more" later this summer. Getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables is a worthwhile goal. But the plan invites corruption - and could worsen the problem it's supposed to fix."

And Stier puts his finger squarely on the problem-the failure of the giveaway to include local food stores: "The coupons will supposedly help inner-city residents get purportedly hard-to-find vegetables for free. Like food stamps, they can pay for produce only at certain green markets - farmers markets out on the sidewalk, schoolyards or parks - in the South Bronx, Harlem and some Brooklyn neighborhoods. (Poor residents of other areas are out of luck.) Yet green markets are only open in harvest months. And the program does nothing to persuade consumers to make wiser purchases the rest of the year. Indeed, the program diverts consumers from supermarkets and bodegas - which Frieden's team seems to think don't supply quality and affordable produce now. But the program does nothing to get these year-round venues to change."

That's, of course, if you accept the analysis that the local stores don't currently supply the produce. If they do-and many certainly are stocking plenty of fruits and vegetables-than the bucks program is siphoning business away from stores, especially supermarkets, that are being driven out of the city by high rents and over-regulation. In this context, the coupon giveaway is nothing but another city reg that hurts local business.

Stier also underscores the important difference between this program and WIC: "Other food vouchers - like those in the federal Women, Infants and Children program - come with sensible rules requiring users to buy the least expensive product. Health Bucks, by contrast, are meant to go for green markets' overpriced organic produce. Nor do Health Bucks get people to change their overall eating behavior and food choices. Recipients can buy exotic purple potatoes on the taxpayer tab - and make tasty, fattening mashed potatoes - but that's no boon to health. But it's all just peachy as far as the Health Department is concerned: As a department spokesperson told me, "Potatoes are vegetables, too."

What makes WIC work well is the fact that the program is monitored by the state and is run through stores that must adhere to the regs if they want to stay in the important revenue producing program. Healthier eating is important in order to address the city's obesity problem; healthy local stores must be part of the solution, and so far the city is lagging way behind in insuring that they are-more interested in trendy giveaways than in developing a coherent program for supermarket retention.