Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fruits and Nuts

All of a sudden the city is trying to tout their green cart experiment-with a major boost from the credulous, non-reporting NY Times. Over a year and a half since the city council passed a law allowing for the placement of 1,000 veggie peddlers in so called underserved areas-"food deserts," if you will-the administration is now trying to claim success; with scant evidence, but a great deal of manufactured fanfare: "But will people buy them? Vegetables, that is. Certainly on Wednesday afternoon, an urgent line formed at a cheery new produce cart that had materialized at the corner of East Fordham Road and Decatur Avenue near Fordham University in the Bronx. “These strawberries look great, and they’re a bargain,” said Michelle Cruz, a 38-year-old graphic designer who lives nearby and found herself jostling other produce hounds under the cart’s jaunty green umbrellas."

A cart materialized-along with a line? Is this reporting? Has the Times bothered to investigate, or is it satisfied to comment on the Bloombergistas Potemkin Village-style dog and pony show? What about the cart that stays quiet in front of Montefiore Hospoital, while its fast food neighbor host a really "urgent line" for lunch?

Or, what about the cart on Gun Hill Road that the NY Daily News found to be sucking wind, with customers so few and far between that the proprietor was thinking of packing it in? All of this was beyond the great investigative acumen at the Times because, (a) they are supportive of the cockamamie concept; and, (b) they're too lazy to do their job of actually trying to report on the issue. That's why they talked to none of the critics of the carting experiment; or bothered to demonstrate any degree of skepticism beyond the flackery exhibited in the faux report today.

But, even without any real in-depth reporting, the paper manged to uncover the following truth: "Some of the vendors who hit the streets last year complained about low-traffic locations, and it will take a while to determine whether there is enough demand to keep all the vendors in business in neighborhoods where processed foods are dominant. And some local merchants could see the carts as competition."

Which underscores everything we've been saying. Either the demand isn't there-and the field of dreams theory doesn't hold up-or any business that is done comes at the expense of local merchants; in this case one of the minority-owned supermarkets that the city says are disappearing from "underserved" neighborhoods: "Fruits and vegetables were available, but the prices were higher, at the Compare Foods market at East 189th Street and Park Avenue, a few blocks away from the Green Cart. Bananas were 99 cents a pound instead of 50 cents, strawberries were $3.99 a container instead of $1.50 and peppers were $1.89 a pound instead of $1. “Maybe we’ll lose some customers to them,” said the manager, who gave his name only as Fabio V., adding that his produce cost more because “I have to pay utilities, high rent, employees — and he doesn’t.”

Which makes the observations of the city's food policy czar jarring to our ears: "In low-income neighborhoods, “we know that it takes more time to build supermarkets,” said Benjamin Thomases, the food-policy coordinator for the Bloomberg administration, “but we can get carts on the streets right now.”

The reality here is that the peddlers, where they actually do some business, will cannibalize the existing food markets-the ones that do pay rent and taxes. Another example, in our view, of how the city undermines neighborhood food retailers and has complicity in the demise of local small business. Under the mayor's watch we have lost 300 supermarkets, yet Thomasses can prattle on about. "it takes time," to build new supermarkets. It's taken only 8 years for the city to lose hundreds of these vital traffic builders in all kinds of local shopping strips; and we've yet to see any plan to prevent this trend from continuing.

What we get is more roadblocks to small business success-as non tax paying vendors are put out in the street in hopes that folks will eat the same veggies that are being sold a couple of blocks a way in a store with real overhead. The incongruity of this is lost on the Times, as the paper talks about cart "frenzy," as if there is a panicked run on green carts reminiscent of when McDonald's opened its first Moscow restaurant.

And what about this comment from a renowned inner city observer? "People working two jobs “are not going to get on a train, or two buses, to travel to get fresh vegetables,” said Laurie M. Tisch, president of the Illumination Fund, a charity that has donated $1.5 million over two years to provide capital for Green Cart micro-loans for basic purchases, like the $2,000 food carts, through Acción New York, a nonprofit organization that helps those who do not qualify for bank credit."

Dilettantes are apparently everywhere. The well meaning Tisch, with no knowledge of the city's neighborhoods-and the fact that there are scores of food stores in a ten block perimeter of the Fordham Road cart, believes that she is bring needed supplies to the stranded desert army of unnecessarily obese New Yorkers.

So let's by all means examine the impact of these carts; and do so with an independent eye that doesn't let the DOH mark its own test. Part of this exam would be evaluating whether the peddlers are needed in any number; but the most crucial variable to look at is the way in which the city, with no regard for food retailers, is setting up unfair competition for store owners who are struggling under the tax and regulatory burdens that the compassionate mayor and health commissioner have imposed with little regard for their negative impact.

What we don't need are adulatory puff pieces that sit up and beg when Master Bloomberg whistles. Unfortunately, that's what today's article does in too many ways. We await a real report-and a proper oversight hearing from the city council.