Monday, March 29, 2010

Rotten Fruit

We were right in the middle of the debate over a dubious idea to put veggie peddlers in so called underserved neighborhoods-arguing that the city's field of dream theories would get spoiled pretty quickly. Now, as the evidence starts to come in, our prognosticating looks to be prescient. The clarion call for peddler licenses has yielded meager fruit.

As the NY Daily News reports: "It's been two years since Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill creating 1,000 new vegetable stands - but just 326 licenses have been eaten up, according to the Health Department." Now keep in mind that the city initially wanted the law to stipulate the creation of 1500 new licenses, but through our lobbying efforts-and the great support from council member John Liu-the number was knocked down.

It surely isn't a fire sale, though. As we told the News: "City officials deny there is a lack of interest in the so-called Green Carts. Critics, however, argue you can't earn cash selling healthy food in poor areas."If there was a demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in those neighborhoods, you wouldn't need to have a campaign to put these carts there," said Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the supermarket industry."

And speaking of lack of interest, where is the enthusiasm at the city council for an oversight hearing on all of this-not to mention one of DOH's vaunted, "studies," of this crucial initiative? The facts on the ground tell the real story: "In 2008, lawmakers approved the permits for fruit-filled carts in low-income communities, arguing those who lived there suffered from high obesity rates and were starved for fresh produce. But entrepreneurs aren't biting. As of this month, Manhattan counts 96 Green Carts, Brooklyn has 84, the Bronx boasts 81, Queens has 64 and Staten Island is home to just one, city data show."

And an oversight hearing would indicate just where these carts are vending-and it is our suspicion that where they are plying their wares you will find a vibrant commercial strip with retail food stores also selling the fresh produce; making the vendors duplicative and an example of unfair cannibalization of legitimate businesses.

Yet, in spite of all the evidence, the city tries to put a happy face on the grim stats: "The program is accomplishing its goal in changing the food landscape in low-income neighborhoods in the city," said the city's food policy coordinator, Ben Thomases." If Ben really believes this, the city might-or should-be in the market for a new landscaper.

But all of this chatter about the nanny experimenters down at the DOH elides the inescapable fact that the department fails miserably in its core mission-that of regulating the health of NYC. This failure is most visible in the inability of the department to properly oversee the veggie carts that they permit to flood our streets-particularly in Manhattan where these carts clog the sidewalks, locate themselves where the law forbids, and plop down in front of beleaguered food stores who are forced to forfeit their veggie business to these licensed scavengers.

And in spite of a yearlong crime blotter of illegality, DOH, DCA and the NYPD sit idly by as the illegality flourishes with impunity. The carts in front of stores in Manhattan do, however, prove one thing beyond any doubt: where demand really exists you don't need a government program to manufacture it.